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A Glacial Vanishing Act

By Stephen Leahy

18 March, 2008
Inter Press Service

BROOKLIN, Canada, Mar 17 (IPS) - Glaciers, the world's freshwater towers, continue their record-breaking meltdown, a new U.N. report shows.

The average rate of thinning and melting more than doubled between 2004 and 2006, reports the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS), a centre based at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

"The latest figures are part of what appears to be an accelerating trend with no apparent end in sight," said Wilfried Haeberli, director of the WGMS.

The accelerated glacier meltdown is a clear indicator that climate change has taken hold and millions if not billions will be affected, warned Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).

Glaciers feed the rivers that people are completely dependent on -- 360 million on the Ganges in India and 388 million on the Yangtze in China alone. Reduced water or irregular water flows will make it more difficult to grow crops in these regions and other parts of the world. Rapidly melting glaciers also produce floods and raise sea levels. On average, there is one metre water of fresh water in every 1.1 metres of glacier ice.

The Service has been tracking the fate of glaciers for over a century. Continuous data series of annual mass balance, expressed as thickness change, are available for 30 reference glaciers since 1980. The ice loss in 2006 was particularly high, nearly triple that of 2005. Overall since 1980, glaciers have experienced an average net loss of 11.5 metres in ice thickness. Such losses are clearly visible in many parts of the world.

Some of the most dramatic shrinking has taken place in Europe, with Norway's Breidalblikkbrea glacier thinning by close to 3.1 metres during 2006 alone. Recent studies indicate that most of the South American glaciers from Colombia to Chile and Argentina are drastically reducing their volume at an accelerated rate.

Nearly all glaciers in the U.S. are also in decline, says William Bidlake, a glacier expert with the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington State.

"There's been an overall decline since the 1950s," Bidlake told IPS.

As temperatures rise, glaciers retreat up the mountain to higher and cooler elevations. "Were seeing new real estate that hasn't seen the light of day for thousands of years," he said.

The mountain snowpack is more important for water flows in the U.S. but in drought years, it is the glaciers that keep water in many rivers during the hot summer months. As glaciers shrink, they have less water to supply those rivers.

This year's cold winter in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere will do little to halt the glacier vanishing act, said Richard Alley, a glaciologist at Penn State University in the U.S.

"Glaciers don't melt in the winter," Alley said in an interview.

The colder and snowier than usual weather has led some to suggest that the rate of climate change is slowing. But even if a few months are cooler or this year is cooler overall than last, the trend over the past 30 years makes it absolutely clear that temperatures are climbing, he said.

Glaciers will continue to melt. Continuing losses on the massive Greenland ice sheet has the potential to raise sea levels seven metres, Alley said.

Everyone should sit and take notice of the see-it-with-your-own eyes glacial meltdown, said Steiner in a statement.

However, an important meeting between the world's top 20 emitters of greenhouse gases ended in acrimony Sunday in Japan. Once again, developed nations failed to find agreement with developing nations on how to curb emissions. These so-called G20 countries that include leading industrialised nations plus large developing countries such as China, India, Brazil and Indonesia are responsible for about 80 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

There is but 18 months until the 2009 U.N. Climate Convention meeting in Copenhagen, where governments must agree on a decisive new emissions reduction treaty. Most scientists around the world say this treaty must result in the reduction of emissions by 25 to 40 percent by 2020 to have a chance to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Without that international agreement in 2009, "like the glaciers, our room for manoeuvre and the opportunity to act may simply melt away," said Steiner.

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