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How to stop glacial retreat

September 27, 2019

Glacial retreat represents a variety of ecological concerns

Glacial retreat is a term that describes what happens when a glacier’s furthest point doesn’t reach as far down valley as it used to at the same time of year. It can be used as a shorthand to describe the shrinking of a glacier and as a symptom for climate concerns globally.

Some of the most famous occurrences of glacier retreat occur in places with glaciers that attract numbers of visitors. Muir Glacier in Alaska has seen a significant reduction in size when comparing photographs from the 1970s to ones taken this decade. Glaciers around Glacier National Park in Montana are also notably smaller than before. 

Earlier this year, the nation of Iceland held a funeral for the first glacier lost to climate change. A bronze plaque was mounted on a bare rock where the Okjökull Glacier used to sit.

The world’s glaciers cover about 10 percent of all land, mostly around Greenland and Antarctica. More glaciers can be found in elevated portions of places like Mt. Kilimanjaro or Patagonia. These frozen spaces store about 70 percent of the world’s fresh water. Based on recent surveys, around 99 percent of glaciers are in retreat.

Glacier loss has devastating consequences. At a global level it relates to temperatures unsustainable for food production and mass extinction. When it occurs in a more localized setting, the runoff of more ice water than typical can cause soil erosion and farmland infertility.

Okjökull Glacier lost to climate change - Photo by Gulf News

Okjökull Glacier lost to climate change - Photo by Gulf News

Glacier retreat can be an indicator of our efforts to reduce climate change at a macro-level

Environmental concerns take root at both a local and global level. A local example of an environmental concern is whether or not a farmer can grow enough food for his or her family due to soil quality. A global level challenge raises questions like whether or not the Gabra tribe can continue their nomadic way of life, which was developed through tracking rainfall over the course of generations.

Glacier retreat is an indicator that relates to global level concerns, although the two of course deeply interlink. The overall rate of carbon emissions into the earth’s atmosphere, the decrease in its forest spaces, and other environmental threats all contribute toward retreat.

Climate change is perhaps the most obvious contributor to glacier retreat, but it is certainly not the only cause.

Transporting invasive pests can have the unintended consequences of disrupting the ecological balance in such places. An example of this is the transportation of rats via cargo ships, visiting Antarctica or the Arctic Circle. Similarly, unsustainable travel by researchers or tourists can have damaging effects.

While these locations may seem distant to the environments we more frequently interact with, they are all interconnected. As temperatures rise and ice melts, increased water flows from the ice caps into seas and oceans. This results in rising waters and warmer oceans. This is a threat to much marine life, and creates the risk of ecological disasters for costal populations.

“Researchers long ago predicted that the most visible impacts from a globally warmer world would occur first at high latitudes: rising air and sea temperatures, earlier snowmelt, later ice freeze-up, reductions in sea ice, thawing permafrost, more erosion, increases in storm intensity. Now all those impacts have been documented in Alaska,” warns Daniel Glick of National Geographic.

Glacier retreat is an indicator more related to global level concerns - Photo by NASA

Glacier retreat is an indicator related to global level concerns - Photo by NASA

So, how can we reduce glacier retreat?

A global problem like glacier retreat requires global solutions. Expecting sudden solutions at the hands of individual actors isn’t likely. There are, however, decisions that when made en masse will have a positive effect on glacier size.

First, we can better weatherize our homes, workspaces, and businesses. This means trying to use as many natural means as possible. This will help keep areas at a comfortable temperature during summers and winters. Refrigerant management is one of the leading contributors to carbon emissions. Changing our norms can have a significantly positive impact.

We can also commit to reducing our overall carbon emissions.

Much information exists about carbon generated by each activity. One general mindset that helps with this is to try to reuse and repurpose things as much as possible. This cuts down on the carbon used to create new products and to transport them to their users.

Finally, tree planting is one of the best and most proactive solutions to climate change. Forests help sequester carbon from the earth’s atmosphere and provide a cooling effect at a global level. They are a rather accessible solution, with widespread humanitarian benefits.

Much of the data surrounding glacier retreat is less than encouraging, however as we become more aware of how this problem relates more to other areas of ecological concern, we can be better stewards of our planet’s glacial spaces as well.

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