Mountain glaciers are in rapid retreat around the Earth, with very few exceptions. Climbers have been rescued from the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps as thawing mountainsides crumble under them. During the summer of 2003, Mont Blanc, Europe's tallest, was closed to hikers and climbers because its deteriorating snow and ice was too unstable to allow safe passage. The mountain was crumbling as ice that once held it together melted during a record warm summer in Europe.
In the Swiss Alps, scientists have estimated that by 2025 glaciers will have lost 90 percent of the volume they contained a century earlier. Roger Payne, a director of the Swiss-based International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, said global warming was emerging as one of the biggest threats to mountain areas. "The evidence of climate change was all around us, from huge scars gouged in the landscapes by sudden glacial floods to the lakes swollen by melting glaciers" (Williams, 2002, 2).
Eighty-five percent of the glaciers in Spain's Pyrenees melted during the twentieth century, according to Greenpeace, which reported, "The surface of the glaciers of the Pyrenees on the Spanish side went from
1,779 hectares (4,394 acres) in 1894 to 290 acres in 2000____That infers a loss of 85 percent of the surface of the glaciers in the last century, with the process accelerating in the last 20 years" (More Than, 2004). Glaciers in that area are expected to vanish by the year 2070. Melting glaciers are revealing a large number of previously buried historical artifacts. For example, a 450-year-old bison skull was found in a melting snow bank in the Colorado Rockies. Human cadavers, airplanes, dead birds, caribou carcasses, mining equipment, and prehistoric weapons have been uncovered (Erickson, 2002, 6-A).
By the end of the twenty-first century, Glacier National Park in Montana may lose the last of its permanent glaciers; its name will be a reminder of what humankind has done to the Earth's climate. The original 150 glaciers within Glacier National Park had been reduced to 37 by 2002, and most of these were small remnants of the once-mighty ice masses. After naturalist George Bird Grinnell campaigned for creation of Glacier National Park more than a century ago, a 500-acre glacier there was named for him. Today, it has lost two-thirds of its mass.
Generally, the only glaciers gaining mass are in wet areas of the world near the oceans, such as parts of Norway and Sweden, where lowland melting has been offset by increased snowfall at higher elevations, another result of warming temperatures. Temperatures are rising on these highland glaciers too, and warmer air holds more moisture. These areas have not yet risen above freezing most of the year. Alaska's Hubbard Glacier "is advancing so swiftly that it threatens to seal off the entrance to Russell Fiord near Yukatat and turn the fiord into an ice-locked lake. Like a handful of other Alaska glaciers, the Hubbard is fed by a high-altitude snowfield that has not yet been affected by warmer temperatures" (Toner, 2002, 4-A). "The Hubbard is definitely an exception," said the Geological Survey's Bruce Molnia, who has been tracking 1,500 Alaska glaciers. "Every mountain group and island we have investigated is seeing significant glacier retreat, thinning or stagnation, especially at lower elevations. Ninety-nine percent of the named glaciers in Alaska are retreating" (Toner, 2002, 4-A).
Scientists reported during October 2003 that the Patagonian Ice Fields of Chile and Argentina have been thinning so quickly that this 6,500-square-mile region of South America is experiencing a pace of glacial retreat that is among the most rapid on Earth. During the period 1995-2000, rate of volume loss for 63 glaciers in the area doubled, compared to the 1968-2000 average (Rignot et al., 2003, 434). Early in 2004, Greenpeace International released results of an aerial survey confirming the rapid recession of the Patagonia glaciers, which was estimated at 42 cubic kilometers a year, an amount that could fill a large sports stadium 10,000 times.
"These losses are not just regrettable but actually threaten the health and well-being of us all. Mountains are the water towers of the world, the sources of many rivers. We must act to conserve them for the benefit of mountain people, for the benefit of humankind," said Klaus Toepfer, head of the United Nations environment program (Vidal, 2002, 7). Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, where major cities rely on glaciers as their main source of water during dry seasons, would be worst affected. --
Thousands of Himalayan glaciers feed several major rivers, sustaining one-sixth of the Earth's population, a billion people downstream mainly in China and India. Their retreat threatens the region's drinking water supply and agricultural production and increases its vulnerability to disease and floods. The Indian Space Research Organization used satellite imaging to measure changes in 466 glaciers, finding more than a 20 percent reduction in their size between 1962 and 2001. Another study found that the Parbati glacier, among the largest, was retreating by 170 feet a year during the 1990s. Another glacier, Dokriani, lost an average of 55 feet a year. Temperatures in the northwestern Himalayas have risen by 2.2°C in the last two decades (Sengupta, 2007). "In the course of the century," warned a report from the Indian Space Research Organization, "water supply stored in glaciers and snow cover are projected to decline, reducing water availability in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges, where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives" (Sengupta, 2007).
The Ex-snows of Mount Kilimanjaro
The snow and ice crown of Mount Kilimanjaro in equatorial Africa, made famous by Ernest Hemmingway a century ago, may vanish before the mid twenty-first century. Kilimanjaro will no longer live up to its name, which in Swahili means "mountain that glitters." Mount Kenya's ice fields have lost three-quarters of their entire extent during the twentieth century. By 2002 Mount Kilimanjaro had lost 82 percent of its ice cap's volume since
Aerial views of Mount Kilimanjaro ice cap: (a) 1993 and (b) 2000 (NASA Earth Observatory)
it was first carefully measured in 1912, according to glaciologist Lonnie Thompson, a third of it since 1990.
Kilimanjaro's ice field shrank from 12 square kilometers in 1912 to only 2.6 square kilometers in 2000, reducing the height of the mountain by several meters. The ice covering the 19,330-foot peak "will be gone by about 2020," said Thompson (Arthur, 2002, 7). The reduction of glacial mass has already cut water volume in some Tanzanian rivers that supply villages near the mountain's base.
Global warming may not be the only culprit in the demise of Kilimanjaro's icecap; natural climate changes (including an extended drought) also have been blamed, along with deforestation on the mountain's slopes that sucks moisture out of rising winds that once coated the upper elevations of the mountain with snow. Euan Nisbet of Zimbabwe's Royal Holloway College has suggested, in all seriousness, that plastic tarps be draped across thee remaining ice fields to extend their life (Morton, 2003).
Some researchers deny that the diminishing snows of Kilimanjaro are related to warming temperatures. Philip Mote of the University of Washington, for example, said that most of the ice loss on Kilimanjaro occurred before the 1950s, when warming temperatures were not the dominant factor. Reduced snowfall is an important factor, according to Mote, as well as sublimation, which converts ice to water vapor at below-freezing temperatures without turning it to water in between (Mote and Kaser, 2007).
The demise of Kilimanjaro's ice cap could imperil Tanzania's economy, which relies on tourism driven by the attraction of the mountain. In the Hemingway short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," a disillusioned writer, Harry Street, reflects on his life while lying injured in an African campsite. The short story was made into a film starring Gregory Peck in 1952. "Kilimanjaro is the number-one foreign currency earner for the government of Tanzania," said Thompson. "It has its own international airport and some
20,000 tourists every year" (Arthur, 2002, 7). --
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