Global Ice Melt: Much Faster Than Predicted

This article, written by Evan Lim, describes how glaciers are disappearing  much faster that previous evidence based studies have estimated. Lim outlines the disastrous effects on communities.


By Evan Lim/Climate and Capitalism

Glaciers are disappearing to twice as fast as previous studies estimated, with disastrous effects on many communities.

Two new studies suggest that recent estimates of global ice melt are conservative.

In other words, ice is melting much more rapidly than experts thought. As a result, sea levels are rising faster as well.

The first study combines various observations from satellites, on-the-ground measurements, and model-based estimates to create a clearer picture of the state of Earth’s ice between 1994 and 2017. Essentially, it captures a global tally of change in ice mass over that time period. The resulting measurements of ice loss and sea level rise fall in the upper range of scenarios forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body within the United Nations meant to provide objective science related to climate change. The IPCC’s scenarios were laid out in their 2019 special report on oceans and the cryosphere, itself a recent overview of assessment work.

Faster sea level rise means that more areas will experience devastating floods sooner, and we are already seeing more of such events.

The second study zooms in on a particular region, rather than compiling measurements at the global scale. Focusing on Greenland, this study investigates how warmer ocean water affects marine terminating glaciers — those that end at the ocean. The authors identified at least 74 glaciers with retreats strongly influenced by warmer ocean waters, which expedite mass loss by undercutting a glacier’s base. Thus, the rest of the glacier is weakened and can collapse. Importantly, glacial melt contributes to rising sea levels; icebergs calving as glaciers thin adds water to the oceans.

Top and bottom illustrations show how the water thins the ice from below, making it easier for pieces to break off. (Source: Michael Wood et. al./Ocean forcing)

The authors of the first study emphasized that there is little doubt that the majority of ice loss is due to climate warming. In an interview with GlacierHub, Michael Zemp, director of the World Glacier Monitoring Service and a professor of glaciology and geomorphodynamics at the University of Zurich who is not affiliated with the study, stated that “Overall, the data show that climate change is happening and impacts are only increasing.”

Zemp also highlighted the complexity of systems in the cryosphere, emphasizing an important dynamic between the two studies in question. Broadly, the driving force of increased ice melt is climate warming. However, within glaciated regions around the world, there are specific characteristics that need to be taken into consideration.

For example, as the Greenland study demonstrates, the region’s glaciers are losing mass much more quickly as the ocean waters melt them from below, making it more easy for pieces to break and fall off. As this regional phenomenon affects the glaciers so significantly, the study authors point out that “projections that exclude ocean-induced undercutting may underestimate mass loss by at least a factor of 2.”

From the different characteristics of each region to the various measurement types (satellite, on-the-ground, modeling) to the time periods in which measurements are observed, models of the cryosphere have much to incorporate. Zemp notes that reports by the IPCC, which attempt to pull data from many different studies, can suffer as a result of the challenges of incorporating wide-ranging factors.

When asked how to reduce ice melt, Walter Immerzeel, a professor at Utrecht University, answered,

“the only real option is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions ASAP. The re-entry of the U.S. in the Paris climate agreement is a hopeful sign.”

Zemp’s conclusion echoed Immerzeel’s:

“the response is not easy, but still very simple. We have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the Paris Agreement will hopefully help with this.”

The Greenland study notes that from 2008-2017, there was a cooling period in the ocean near Greenland. Despite this cooling, grounded ice (ice on land) continued to retreat significantly. As a result of previous warming, the glaciers have already been removed from their state of equilibrium, meaning the balance between mass gain and loss is gone. Even if emissions stopped immediately, there would still be lingering effects and mass loss as a result of the damage that has already been done. If emissions stopped, global temperatures would still be high enough for ice to continue to melt.

“It [climate change] was already urgent, but these conclusions further emphasize this. We need to act now and invest in both mitigation (reducing emissions) and adaptation (being prepared for the impact),” Immerzeel told GlacierHub.

He also noted that increased ice melt has significant implications for communities which rely on glaciers as sources of fresh drinking water and water for irrigation. For example, villages in Peru rely heavily on the Cordillera Blanca mountain range. The mountains and glaciers provide a rich cultural history, economic benefits through tourism and water used for irrigation, tourist guesthouses and household consumption. As the glaciers melt, the traditions of the culture that rely on the glaciers disappear, and people’s livelihoods are threatened by the impacts on tourism and agriculture and the sudden appearance of floods.

While certain damages are unavoidable, there can absolutely be more harm to come if significant action is not taken now.

Whether action is undertaken to protect current vulnerable communities or future generations, reducing emissions can shrink the burden people will inevitably have to bear. Communities are being affected as glaciers melt and sea levels rise, but the extent to which these damages will occur is still uncertain and can still be changed if the right measures are taken.


This article was written by Evan Lim, Columbia University Earth Institute, and published in Climate & Capitalism on February 17th, 2021. You can read at source here.

GlacierHub.

The principal studies referenced in this article:

4 thoughts on “Global Ice Melt: Much Faster Than Predicted”

  1. “xyz faster then previously though” Is a common them in climate science.
    Even if we stop CO2 emissions today +0,5°C are already baked (pun intended) into the system. and looking at all the other guesses from climate scientist the 0,5 figure is also way to low. I really wish I would still have hope that we can stop the madness of global industrial civilization but unless someone who wants to do that gets some nukes and rockets to bring them up to the stratosphere for a global EMP I don’t see a way to do that.

    1. The reason for constantly understating how bad global warming/climate change is is that scientists are under tremendous pressure from industries and their lackeys in governments to do so. If the scientists told the public the truth about the severity of this problem and it were published in major media, maybe large numbers of people would change their lifestyles in ways that would cost these harmful industries money and possibly put them out of business. Probably wouldn’t happen anyway, but that’s what the industries are concerned about.

      Secondarily, scientists are afraid that if they were to tell people how bad this all is, people would give up and not try to do anything about it. People aren’t doing anything significant or effective anyway, so this is a baseless fear, but it’s real nonetheless.

  2. I agree with Steve. As Derrick Jensen said in one of his videos, “We could [do what’s necessary to save the world], but we won’t.”

    Civilization bought into the myth of “perpetual progress” so long ago, society is now unable even to see the absurdity of believing that each new and bigger generation of greedy humans can have more and “live better” than the one before.

    We don’t even need to “do the math.” It’s simple arithmetic: More and more people can’t continually extract more and more resources, to manufacture more, buy more, and waste more — on a planet that not only isn’t getting any bigger, but effectively gets smaller by the year, as capitalism continues its mad rush to deplete the world’s resources.

    And don’t buy the lie that we can “mine the asteroids” and “colonize Mars.” We’re abandoning gold mines in South Africa because it costs more than it’s worth to dig up gold from 2 miles underground. But we can somehow make money with mines 300 million miles above ground? How does that work?

    Our brains have become so deluded that a senator from Wyoming last week asked the interior secretary-nominee what oilfield workers would do for jobs, if we decided to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

    The answer, Sen. Doofus, is that jobs aren’t an excuse for anything. If they were, think of the men we could employ by having half of them dig holes, while the other half filled them up! And what about all the jobs held by people who cultivate, refine, and smuggle cocaine? Think of the agricultural jobs we could create by starting weed farms and scorpion ranches!

    Come to think of it, the oil industry IS about digging holes and filling them up. The only difference is, they’re not exactly the same holes. We dig big ones in the tar sands to get oil out. And then we dig smaller holes in graveyards, to bury the 7 million people who die every year from air pollution.

    What about their jobs?

    1. As some Canadian TV show put it, if “jobs” are your priority, you end up with Nazi Germany. Right livelihood is the legitimate issue, not jobs.

      If we lived in a society that took care of its people instead of viewing them as just workers & consumers to be used and discarded, “jobs” wouldn’t be a concern, but that’s another issue. And this isn’t going to change, because most people in the U.S. think they’ll be rich someday (totally delusional, but that’s what they think, at least unconsciously) so they support this attitude, which is why they vote for and support Republicans and corporate Democrats, the latter being the large majority of the Democratic Party.

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