Posted by: JohnnyRook | November 18, 2008

Thirsty Yet? Alpine Glaciers in Full Retreat

When you think about Climaticide-induced ice melting, chances are images of Greenland, Antarctica or Arctic sea ice come to mind, but a recent article in the Tribune of India as reported by the Environmental News Network, reminds us that there are other glaciers, the thousands and thousands of alpine glaciers (as opposed to the larger continental glaciers), whose demise will have a dramatic and more immediate impact on the lives of hundreds of millions, if not billions of people.

As it turns out temperatures higher up in the atmosphere, where one finds glaciers covering mountainsides and mountaintops have increased even faster than at lower altitudes. And, in the near term it’s not so much a question of sea-level rise although the melting of alpine glaciers will contribute disproportionately to that phenomenon. The more pressing danger is that shrinking glaciers will leave many urban areas without drinking water and agricultural regions without water for irrigation.

What follows is a brief look at a few sample alpine glaciers. A review of all retreating alpine glaciers would fill a very large book.

Global Glacier Thickness Change

Global Glacier Thickness Change: This shows average annual and cumulative glacier thickness change, measured in vertical meters, for the period 1961 to 2005. Explosive volcanic eruptions, which contribute dust to the stratosphere and cool the Earth’s climate, can also affect glacier mass balance. Four significant eruptions with worldwide impacts are shown on this graph and are generally associated with periods of increased mass balance due to lowered temperatures. Image courtesy of Mark Dyurgerov, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado, Boulder.


According to the Tribune Article:

Seventy per cent of the world’s freshwater is frozen in glaciers. Glacier melt buffers other ecosystems against climate variability. Very often, it provides the only source of water for humans and the biodiversity during dry seasons.

The Himalayan glaciers feed seven of Asia’s great rivers: the Ganga [Ganges–JR], Indus, Barahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Huang Ho. About 70 per cent of glaciers are retreating at a startling rate in the Himalayas due to climate change.

The Glacial melt has started affecting freshwater flows with dramatic adverse effects on the biodiversity, and people and livelihoods, with a possible long-term implication on regional food security.

The WWF’s India, Nepal and China chapters some time back carried out a massive study ”Glaciers, glacier retreat and its impact” (sic) [See full report here-PDF–JR] on freshwater as a major issue, not just in the national context but also at a regional and trans-boundary level.

New data collected by scientists at the Jawaharlal Nehru University has shown that glaciers in the Himalayas are retreating faster than anywhere else in the world. Together with those on the neighbouring Tibetan mountain plateau, the Himalayan glaciers make up the largest body of ice outside the Polar regions.

The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)’s scientist, professor Syed Hasnain, in a recent study claimed that “All the glaciers in the middle Himalayas are retreating, and they could disappear from the central and eastern Himalayas by 2035.”

India Rivers Map

Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute offers the following analysis:

“If the giant Gangotri glacier that supplies 70 per cent of the water to the Ganga during the dry season disappears, the river could become seasonal and carry no water in summers when irrigation needs are the greatest,’’ said Brown adding that the intergovernmental panel on climate change was also of the same opinion. Ganga also supplies drinking water to 407 million people.

“Mountain glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau are melting and could soon deprive the major rivers of India and China of the ice-melt needed to sustain them during the dry season,” Brown pointed out.

According to him, the world has never faced such a predictably massive threat to food production as that posed by the melting mountain glaciers of Asia. Notably, India and China are the world’s leading producers of wheat and rice.

“In India, water tables are also falling and wells are going dry in almost every state. Losing the river water used for irrigation can lead to politically unmanageable food shortages,’’ he warns.

“In a world where grain prices have recently climbed to record highs, with no relief in sight, any disruption of the wheat or rice harvests due to water shortages in India and China will greatly affect not only people living there but consumers everywhere. In both the countries, food prices are likely to rise and grain consumption per person can be expected to fall,’’ added Brown.

“As food shortages unfold, India may try to import large quantities of grain, although it may lack the economic resources to do so, especially if grain prices keep climbing. Many Indians will be forced to tighten their belts further, including those who have no notches left,’’ Brown concluded.


The problem is not limited to the Himalayan Glaciers. A recent Spanish study asserts that there will be NO glaciers in the Pyrenees within less than 50 years.

There are currently only 21 glaciers in the Pyrenees (ten on the Spanish side and eleven on the French side) covering an area of 450 hectares. In just 15 years, since 1990, glaciological calculations have shown that rapid melting has caused the total regression of the smallest glaciers and 50%-60% of the surface area of the largest glaciers.

Glaciers had already disappeared from the Picos de Europa and the Sierra Nevada by the early 20th century.

Scientists from the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) in Zurich concluded over two years ago that three-quarters of European glaciers will be gone by the end of the century.

For an interesting video on the melting of the Goldberg Glacier in Austria click here (you have to watch a short ad first).


Meanwhile in Alaska a team, led by geophysicist Scott Luthcke of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center has just published a report on the melting of glaciers in the Gulf of Alaska.

The study found the annual ice mass lost from glaciers in the Gulf of Alaska has been about five times the average annual flow of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and equal to the entire amount of water in the Chesapeake Bay.

“The Gulf of Alaska region is 20 times smaller than the ice-covered area of Greenland, yet it contributes nearly half as much freshwater melt as Greenland and accounts for about 15 percent of present-day global sea level rise stemming from melting ice,” said Luthcke. “Considering the Gulf of Alaska makes such a disproportionate contribution, it is vital that we know more about the nature of glacial change there.”

Muir Glacier 1941-2004

Muir Glacier, Alaska. Photo on the left taken on August 13, 1941. Photo on the right taken on August 31, 2004.

For larger image click here.

Image Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, W. O. Field, B. F. Molnia


In Peru the melting of the Quelccaya Glacier has already led to water shortages in Cuzco…

Cuzco, a city of 400,000, has already resorted to periodic water rationing and started pumping from a river 15 miles away for its drinking supply. In Peru’s capital, Lima, engineers have urged successive governments to drill a tunnel through the Andes and build big lagoons to ensure that the city’s 8 million residents have water. Citing the expense, authorities have dawdled. Cities in China, India, Nepal and Bolivia also face drastic water shortages as the glaciers shrink.

“You can think of these glaciers as a bank account built over thousands of years,” said Lonnie Thompson, one of the first scientists to sound the alarm, as he stood by the largest ice cap in the Andes. “If you subtract more than you gain, eventually you go bankrupt. That’s what’s in process here.”

Qori Kalis Glacier 1978-2004

Qori Kalis Glacier [an arm of the Quelccaya Ice Cap], Peru. Photo on the left taken in July 1978. Photo on the right taken on July 2004.

For larger image click here.

Image Credit: Lonnie G. Thompson, Byrd Polar Research Center, the Ohio State University/courtesy NSIDC.

…and Lima, and, particularly Lima’s poor, are next in line to suffer:

“The repercussions of this are very scary,” agreed Tim Barnett, a climate scientist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. “When the glaciers are gone, they are gone. What does a place like Lima do? Or, in northwest China, there are 300 million people relying on snowmelt for water supply. There’s no way to replace it until the next ice age.”

At least three times a day, Eva Rondon, 38, walks the 18 worn steps carved out of the hillside of a shantytown on the far outskirts of Lima. She carries a plastic bucket to an old Shell Oil barrel with a rusty top and lid fashioned out of a few boards nailed together. She has paid a private water trucker to fill the barrel with water — the only source for her family and neighbors — and even that water is often dirty.

An estimated 2 million of Lima’s 8 million people have no water service. Some live decades without it, buying water at as much as 30 times the price per gallon paid by customers whose homes are connected to the government-owned water utility. They are organizing to demand service from a government they say is corrupt and uncaring. But they have no doubt who will be deprived if the melting glaciers make Lima’s water even scarcer.

More from Lonnie Thompson:

Since 1974, Thompson has made the trek to the Quelccaya ice cap at least 27 times, drilling cores through to bedrock, taking samples and periodically monitoring its slow but accelerating retreat. Ancient plant beds have been newly uncovered as the ice retreats. The first were discovered in 2002, more are uncovered each year, and carbon dating indicates that most have been buried for at least 5,000 years. They indicate that the current retreat of the ice exceeds any other retreat in at least the last 50 centuries.

Evidence from the analysis of those ice cores – as well as records from more than a dozen other remote ice fields across the globe over the past three decades –point to an increase in temperatures throughout the tropics.

Thompson notes that today’s globally averaged temperature is thought to be only a few degrees cooler than the temperature at the height of the Eemian interglacial period, roughly 125,000 years ago when melting ice raised sea level nearly 6 meters (20 feet). Recent model projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest that the globally averaged temperature at the end of the current century could be 3 degrees warmer than it is today, he says.

Quelccaya is not the only mountain where Lonnie Thompson has seen the glaciers retreat. (Because of his research, Thompson has probably spent more time living at high altitudes than any other human being on the planet.)


I’ll conclude with a glacier around which there has been some controversy: Kilimanjaro.

In 2001, [Lonnie Thompson] predicted that the famed “snows of Kilimanjaro” in Tanzania would disappear in 15 years as the glaciers atop that ancient volcano succumb to a warmer climate. If anything, he now wonders if his predictions were too conservative.

“Kilimanjaro is behaving just like Mount Kenya and the Rwenzori, both also in Africa, as well as the glaciers in the Andes and the Himalayas ,” he said. “This widespread retreat of mountain glaciers may be our clearest evidence of global warming as they integrate many climate variables. Most importantly, they have no political agenda,” he said.

Ironically, there has been some question among scientists regarding to what extent the melting of the Kilimanjaro glaciers are the direct result of global warming and, while the glaciers may not have a political agenda, the petroleum-coal-gas lobby and their shills do and they have seized on the case of Kilimanjaro as a blunt instrument in their propaganda war against the public perception of the science of global warming. The Climaticide denialists/delayers have attempted to use the scientific dispute surrounding Kilimanjaro in their usual dishonest, oversimplified way to challenge the truth of global warming altogether. Ignoring the thousands of retreating alpine glaciers worldwide about which there is no dispute, they focus on one instance where there is controversy (albeit a much more subtle one than they would have you believe.) For more information check out this outstanding article by Raymond Pierrehumbert, at Real Climate. It not only deals with the Kilimanjaro controversy but provides an excellent overview of tropical glacier retreat as a whole.



  1. […] I wrote about the demise of alpine glaciers around the world and the consequences that their disappearance would have for hundreds of millions […]

  2. […] Johnny Rook does a very nice post showing how, as with sea ice, while the annual change may vary quite a bit the cummulative loss in glacial thickness has been catastrophic. Global Glacier Thickness Change […]

  3. […] The glaciers are advancing even though they are not. […]

  4. […] More on Glaciers […]

  5. […] are observing the same phenomena in the Alps that have already been reported in the Himalayas here and here and in the Andes. Swiss glaciers are melting away at an accelerating rate and many will […]

  6. […] described here and here. Of course the handful of glaciers in the world that are growing are doing so because warmer air […]

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