What are glaciers and how do they form?
A glacier is essentially a mass of ice which forms over many thousands of years from falling snow. If the snow falls faster than the summer temperatures can melt it, then eventually the weight of snow compresses to form ice. This often occurs on mountains where the air at higher altitudes stays sufficiently cold to prevent the winter snow from melting. When a glacier forms on a downward slope we see the familiar form of a giant frozen river, as the glacier slowly grinds its way down towards sea level.
Most of us would recognise the familiar form of a giant glacier snaking its way down a mountain, but did you know that Greenland and most of Antarctica are actually covered by glaciers too? In total, glaciers cover around 10% of the Earth’s surface. These ice sheets lying on top of the land masses of Antarctica and Greenland can be up to 2 miles (3.2km) thick, and this enormous weight has actually pressed the land surface below sea level.
What are the consequences if we don’t stop glaciers from melting?
Glaciers hold approximately 70% of the world’s fresh water and often feed rivers and lakes with their meltwater, which are vital water sources for local communities.
Glacial ice melting into the sea has the potential to increase sea levels, endangering already threatened communities and low lying islands around the world.
As cold glacial water enters the oceans, especially around the poles, it has the potential to disrupt the thermal currents which provide vital climate stability, such as the North Atlantic Gulf Stream. Any changes to these systems increases the risk of catastrophic extreme weather events.
Glaciers are also home to a number of land and marine species, many of which wouldn’t survive without these unique habitats.
What can we do to stop the glaciers from melting?
While massive damage has already been done, scientists agree that there is still time to save the glaciers, and stop further damage being done from their melting. Human-driven climate change, causing global temperatures to rise, is undeniably causing glaciers to melt at unprecedented rates. There have been ambitious targets set by the UN and the Paris Agreement which we can all contribute towards meeting.
We can of course put pressure on governments to invest more in renewable technologies by lobbying our local politicians and by voting for parties with a clear commitment to the environment.
As individuals we can try to keep our own carbon footprints to a minimum. Reducing the frequency with which we fly, taking public transport wherever possible and investing in efficient thermal insulation for our homes will all help. We can also select energy suppliers who derive their power from renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydroelectric power.
We can avoid single-use plastics such as the 5 trillion plastic bags we use annually, or the 1 million plastic bottles we buy every single minute. We can switch to energy efficient light bulbs which can not only reduce energy use by up to 80%, but also last up to 25 times longer than conventional light bulbs. We can also consume less meat as the industrial farming required to raise livestock contributes as much greenhouse gas emissions as all our transportation combined.
These small changes will all help fight climate change and save our glaciers, but there are also inspiring individuals and grassroots organizations who dedicate themselves to stop the climate change. They carry out vital work, which we can support through organisations such as Milkywire.
Glaciers provide a crystal clear demonstration of the effects of human-driven climate change. Their demise is more than just a symbol of our century of carefree consumption, it’s also a direct threat to the lives of multiple species, humans included, around the world.
Glaciers have quite literally shaped the environment around us, and it’s up to us to shape their future by acting now.