Rate of glacier melt doubles in one year

Posted: 17 March 2008

The world's glaciers are continuing to melt away with the latest official figures showing record losses. Data from close to 30 reference glaciers in nine mountain ranges show that between the years 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 the average rate of melting and thinning more than doubled.

The findings come from the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS), a centre based at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. The centre is supported by the UN Environment Programme that announced news of its latest research yesterday.

Meltwater
Meltwater
Meltwater stream flowing off the Greenland ice sheet. Photo by Roger Braithwaite, University of Manchester courtesy NASA
The Monitoring 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.

Prof. Dr. Wilfried Haeberli, Director of the Service said: "The latest figures are part of what appears to be an accelerating trend with no apparent end in sight".

Accelerating loss

The Service calculates thickening and thinning of glaciers in terms of 'water equivalent'. The estimates for the year 2006 indicate that further shrinking took place equal to around 1.4 metres of water equivalent compared to losses of half a metre in 2005.

"This continues the trend in accelerated ice loss during the past two and a half decades and brings the total loss since 1980 to more than 10.5 metres of water equivalent," said Professor Haberli. During 1980-1999, average loss rates had been 0.3 metres per year. Since the turn of the millennium, this rate had increased to about half a metre per year.

The record loss during these two decades - 0.7 metres in 1998 - has now been exceeded by three out of the past six years: 2003, 2004 and 2006.

On average, one metre water equivalent corresponds to 1.1 metres in ice thickness indicating a further shrinking in 2006 of 1.5 actual metres and since 1980 a total reduction in thickness of ice of just over 11.5 metres or almost 38 feet.

Millions at risk

Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, said: "Millions if not billions of people depend directly or indirectly on these natural water storage facilities for drinking water, agriculture, industry and power generation during key parts of the year," said Mr Steiner.

"There are many canaries emerging in the climate change coal mine. The glaciers are perhaps among those making the most noise and it is absolutely essential that everyone sits up and takes notice," he said.

Melting glacier, Prince William Sound, Alaska
Melting glacier, Prince William Sound, Alaska
Melting glacier, Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA. Photo © P.L. Sherman / Still Pictures / UNEP
"To an important and significant extent that is already happening-indeed the elements of a Green Economy are already emerging from the more than $100 billion being invested in renewable energies to the responsible investment principles endorsed by 300 financial institutions with $13 trillion-worth of assets," said Mr Steiner.

"The litmus test will come in late 2009 at the climate convention meeting in Copenhagen. Here governments must agree on a decisive new emissions reduction and adaptation-focused regime. Otherwise, and like the glaciers, our room for man oeuvre and the opportunity to act may simply melt away," he added.

Dramatic shrinkage

The WGMS findings also contain figures from around 100 glaciers, of which 30 form the core assessment, found in Antarctica, Asia, Europe, North America, Latin America and the Pacific.

Some of the most dramatic shrinking has taken place in Europe with Norway's Breidalblikkbrea glacier thinning by close to 3.1 metres (2.9 metre water equivalent) during 2006 compared with a thinning of 0.3 metres (0.28 metres water equivalent) in the year 2005.

Other dramatic shrinking has been registered at Austria's Grosser Goldbergkees glacier, 1.2 metres in 2006 versus 0.3 in 2005; France's Ossoue glacier, nearly 3 metres versus around 2.7 metres in 2005; Italy's Malavalle glacier 1.4 metres versus around 0.9 metres in 2005; Spain's Maladeta glacier, nearly 2 metres versus 1.6 metres in 2005; Sweden's Storglaciaeren glacier, 1.8 metres versus close to 0.080 metres in 2005 and Switzerland's Findelen glacier, 1.3 metres versus 0.22 metres in 2005.

Not all of the close to 100 glaciers monitored posted losses with some thickening during the same period including Chile's Echaurren Norte glacier while others, such as Bolivia's Chacaltaya glacier; Canada's Place glacier; India's Hamtah glacier and the Daniels and Yawning glaciers in the Untied States shrank less in 2006 than they did in 2005.

However, for the close to 30 reference glaciers only one (Echaurren Norte in Chile) thickened over the same period.

NOTE:The latest WGMS figures can be accessed here

The potential impacts of climate change on glaciers was outlined in the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published in 2007. This concluded, for example, that many Himalayan glaciers could, at current rates of global warming, disappear within the coming decades, seriously affecting half a billion people in the Himalaya-Hindu-Kush region and a quarter billion downstream. The Ganga, Indus, Brahmaputra and other rivers that criss-cross the northern Indian plain may become seasonal rivers in the near future. [For more information on the likely impact of glacier melt see our Climate Factfile]

Related links

Melting glaciers threaten Peru's future

Water crisis looms as Himalayan glaciers retreat

Ice melt accelerates around the world

Equatorial African icecaps melting away