The vanishing of the ice…

I was recently asked to comment on this interesting new paper by David Rounce and co-authors for AP by Seth Borenstein called “Global glacier change in the 21st century: Every increase in temperature matters”. You can read his resulting summary here . I’m posting here the slightly expanded and lightly edited response I sent to Seth in response to his (very good) questions.

The authors only look at the small glaciers and ice caps in this study, not the big polar ice sheets, though they do also cover small peripheral glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica that are not part of the main ice sheets. Of course, this means that sea level rise from all the other important processes like thermal expansion and ice sheet met also have to be taken into account on top of the numbers given here.

Their main findings were that at 1.5 °C above preindustrial, we can expect total glacial mass loss between 2015 and 2100 would be 26% with 90 mm of sea level rise and 49% of the small glaciers and ice caps lost globally. The paper only deals with these small glaciers and does not count the big ice sheets!

At 4°C, we’re looking at 41% mass loss with ~154 mm of sea level rise and 83% of glaciers lost. At 2.7 °C, where the world is now heading, 32% mass loss, 115 mm of sea level rise and 68% of glaciers lost.

I’m sad to say that the results aren’t exactly a surprise – the community has known for some time that the loss of glaciers is basically linear with temperature, so the title of the paper is really spot on, every tenth of a degree really does matter. This earlier paper by my Horizon 2020 PROTECT project collaborator Ben Marzeion shows something very similar But it’s a nice new result with the latest generation of glacier model and updated with the latest CMIP (IPCC) scenarios and they included some new processes that weren’t very well accounted for in previous work.

My first thought was that these latest estimates were actually a little lower than I expected, but the baseline in the paper is 2015 – we should remember that many of these glaciers have already lost quite a lot of ice (see my two photos of Nigårdsbreen in Norway, taken only 13 years apart) – so the new estimates are basically in line with what I would have expected given earlier work. I’d also expect that they will continue to lose ice beyond 2100 so it’s definitely not an end state that they are giving here. As they state in the article there will be widespread deglaciation of some pretty iconic parts of the world, even under the present planned emissions reductions..

In many ways part of the problem has been the previous studies have not always accounted for all the processes: frontal ablation (melt and calving of vertical ice cliffs, mostly in contact with water), the effect of debris cover and so forth (the latter will likely reduce the rate of loss, the former probably increases it). Given what we know about these processes and how to represent them in models, I still consider this work to be a more realistic estimate. Then we also need to account for the climate models and the scenarios used to force them – there are some important differences between CMIP5 and CMIP6 which might also account for some of this shift.  We have actually seen something somewhat similar for the projected changes in the big ice sheets.

It’s probably important to remember though that this study still needs to make simplifications, especially when looking at so many glaciers in so many different regions, so there will always be new updates to come with improved computing power and computational techniques and better representation of processes. Having said that, I do not think the picture will substantially change in future, though I can always be proved wrong, and the glaciers community are now at the stage of refining estimates for rates of mass loss.

Globally the loss of glaciers means sea level rise. Regionally and locally the biggest consequences will be for for water resources and we’re likely to see a local increase in natural hazards like outburst floods and avalanches that will need to be carefully managed. There have been a couple of instances already in the last year or two that probably demonstrate this well (e.g. the Marmolada glacier in Italy last year).

Sea level budget divided into components, from Legeais et al. 2018 ESSD The steric component is the expansion of sea water as it warms.

The small glaciers are currently a larger contributor to sea level rise than the big ice sheets, but that will of course change as they disappear and even small amounts of sea level rise, as represented here, are important in coastal communities where storm surges can occur. So we definitely need to account for their loss in planning for sea level rise and extreme storm surges. Locally and culturally there will also need to be changes. I think this will be a little traumatic for some cultures which have always considered themselves “glaciated” nations. The response I see to pictures  of the current state of the European Alps where people are skiing on artificial snow in green fields is a case in point here. It’s a shocking thing to witness.

I include myself in the group who has to get used to the cultural shift.  I have worked on glaciers in the Alps and Norway which are really rapidly disappearing. It’s kind of devastating to see, but it’s not actually surprising. We have known it was coming and in many cases (including the authors of this paper), measured the massive losses (last year, 2022 was a disaster for the Alps and both Fabien Maussion and Matthias Huss who are co-authors on the paper are running very comprehensive programmes that show in real time how much of a disaster) and predicted it with some accuracy. But we’re now at the point where it’s really undeniable that these glaciers are going fast.

The Rhonegletscher in the timelapse above is a really iconic glacier in the Alps, I have my own favourites, mostly places I’ve worked, like Norway, Iceland and Greenland, which are all to a greater or lesser extent retreating fast now. The glaciers that people consider iconic or at least well-known tend to be accessible and depend very much where you are and they will be the glaciers we mourn over in the next decades. In the French Alps, it’s probably the Mer de Glace, in Switzerland perhaps Rhone glacier or Plaine Morte (both have monitoring programmes), in Canada perhaps the Malaspina or Athabasca glaciers. There are still (just) glaciers on Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, the Ruwenzoris are basically gone, as are the Papuan glaciers.

One of the longest records anywhere in the world for glacier length change is Nigårdsbreen in Norway. This plot was put together by NWE: The Norwegian Water directorate who monitor a number of glaciers

Though they show in the study that ice loss is basically linear with temperature, at some point the glaciers become so small that the remianing melt is highly non-linear. And these won’t grow back under any sensible “overshoot” scenario (never mind that we don’t really have technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere at scale). Once they’re gone, they’re basically gone forever on human timescales Finally, I’d like to add a bit of anlaysis by Ben Marzeion and co-authors , it’s possible to basically put a number on the amount of melted glacier ice each kg of CO₂ leads to.

We find that under present-day climate conditions, every emitted kg of CO2 will eventually be responsible for a glacier mass loss of 15.8 (5.9–20.5) kg. Again, since the global glacier mass is decreasing with increasing temperatures, this number is greater for lower temperatures and smaller for higher temperatures.

Marzeion et al., 2018

It’s past time to stop burning fossil fuels.

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