Melting Glaciers are Climate Change’s Canary In the Coal Mine

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Climate change is driving increased glacier melt and ice loss across the globe

Glacier melt is the canary in the coal mine of climate change. A New Zealand study found that it is “very likely” that climate change caused the melting of 10 glaciers in New Zealand’s South Island. The researchers discovered that glacier loss was at least six times more likely to occur due to climate change since 2011 and 10 times more likely since 2018.

The “increased likelihood of climate change is driven by temperatures one degree Celsius above the pre-industrial average, which confirms a link between greenhouse gas emissions and high annual ice loss, according to the study. 

“These results suggest that as warming and extreme heat events continue and intensify, there will be an increasingly visible human fingerprint on extreme glacier mass-loss years in the coming decades,” the researchers concluded.

The researchers analyzed two years (2011 and 2018) when glaciers in New Zealand melted the most in the last four decades. Both years experienced warmer than average temperatures. During the summer of 2018, the Tasman marine heatwave caused the warmest sea temperatures on record around New Zealand. The study is the first one to attribute annual glacier melt to climate change, and the second to directly link glacier melt to climate change.

The volume of ice lost from the Brewster Glacier in Mt. Aspiring National Park in New Zealand equals the drinking water requirements for all people in New Zealand for three years. Yet the volume lost from Brewster Glacier is only a fraction of the ice storage in decline in the Southern Alps, which has declined since annual monitoring started in the late 1970s. Around 30 percent of the Southern Alps ice volume declined over the past four decades, which equals 15.9 trillion liters of water or the daily drinking water requirements for the New Zealand population.

Glacier melt contributes to sea level rise

New Zealand is not the only place in the world experiencing glacier melt. The area and volume of New Zealand glaciers will decrease by about 80 percent by the end of the century, according to research, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at present rates. A 2018 study shows that by 2100, one-third of the 56 glaciers studied by researchers, including in Central Asia and the Andes, will experience runoff decreases up to 10 percent. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at present rates, the Arctic could be ice-free in summer by 2040.

Melting glaciers contribute to rising sea levels, which increases coastal erosion and storm surge. The largest contributors to global sea-level rise are the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. The Greenland ice sheet is decreasing four times faster than it did in 2003 and contributes to 20 percent of sea-level rise. If all ice on Greenland melts, global sea levels would rise by 20 feet.

Glacier melt in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is changing the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation, which is linked to more destructive hurricanes and storms. As sea ice and glaciers continue to melt, oceans warm, which causes ocean current to disrupt weather patterns. Not only are people affected, but wildlife as well.

Trump versus Biden on climate change

As glaciers continue to melt and sea level rises, two U.S. presidential candidates present vastly different environmental views. President Trump issued an executive order not too long after taking office that for every new regulation enacted, two must be eliminated. From 2017 to April 2020, his administration took 74 actions to weaken environmental regulations, according to the Brookings Institute. Those actions include withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement.

Joe Biden has a plan for the U.S. to achieve a 100 percent clean energy economy and net zero emissions by 2050. Part of that plan includes making a “historic investment: in energy, climate research and innovation, infrastructure, and communities. He pledges to enact new fuel economy standards that ensure 100 percent of new sales for light- and medium-duty vehicles will be electrified.

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