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in 2011 used satellite images and stream-flow reports from automated river gaugingstations to conclude that at least one partof the Andean ice pack has reached ‘peakwater’. It’s a concept like peak oil (the ideathat the world’s petroleum production mustreach – or already has reached – a plateaufrom which it can only decline). But in thiscase, we’re talking not about fuel, but waterfor hydroelectric power, irrigation andmaintaining fish stocks.It’s also bad news for the rivers fed bythese glaciers. Glaciers melt top down asthe warm summer sunshine affects theice’s surface.
But as the glacier’s surfacebecomes smaller, there’s an offsettingfactor. Each hectare may be producingmore melt than ever, but there are fewerThompson was the first towarn that the fabled ‘Snows of Kilimanjaro’, a 5,895m glacier-capped volcano in Tanzania, Africa, are doomed. “Since1919 we have lost 80% of theice coverage on Kilimanjaro,”he said in a 2004 lecture ata meeting of the AmericanGeophysical Union. At the time,he predicted the last of the icewould be gone by 2020, andwhile he’s now saying “in thenext few decades”, in 2009 hereported that more than a quarter of the icepresent in 2000 had already vanished.Glaciers are “the canaries in the coalmine for the Earth’s climate system,” hesays. Like the birds carried by miners todetect toxic fumes, glaciers are the firstto die under adverse conditions – in thiscase, climate change – and their demisecan be dramatic and often highly visible.It’s one thing to read that by the end of this century, sea levels might be risingat 5 to 10 millimetres a year, the globemay be 2 to 4°C warmer, and that half theworld’s plant communities may have beenaltered by heat. These are scary ideas, butthe changes lack the visual impact of aglacier shrinking not by just millimetres,but kilometres, and in the span of a singlegeneration. Like a dead canary, a vanishedglacier is hard not to notice.
THE REASON MOUNTAIN
glaciers are sosensitive, Thompson says, is that they existin a delicate balance between winter snowand summer heat. Shift the balance onlyslightly and glaciers can change enormously. And the smaller the glacier, the moredramatic the change.Charlie Love, a geologist at WesternWyoming Community College, RockSprings, USA, cites the largest glacier inWyoming’s Grand Teton National Parkas an example. Currently, it is 900m longand flowing downhill at about 9m a year.In other words, the ice melting off thebase today fell as snow only 100 yearsago. In the nearby Wind River Range,Love says, there’s a glacier with hundredsof years of ice.“That is the critical issue,” he says. “If youhave a glacier that has [only] 100 years of ice, and you have climate change, the thingmay disappear overnight.” And yes, he says,like virtually every other glacier in the U.S.,it is currently shrinking.
The icecaps of Greenland and Antarcticaare subject to the same forces. Butmountain glaciers have smaller volumesof ice, and react a lot more quickly totemperature and snowfall changes. Andwhile Greenland’s glaciers might be moreimportant in terms of global climate,they’re kind of remote. If Wyoming’sglaciers vanished, the global effects mightnot be as significant, but the tourists wouldcertainly notice.While Horodyskyj and Thompson studyglaciers by climbing on to them, datagathered in the security of laboratories isalso confirming we are reaching a tippingpoint in the retreat of glaciers. A case in point is a recent find by MichelBaraer of McGill University, Montreal, who
“If the Himalayan glaciers melt, forexample, there goes the water sourcefor millions of people.”
hectares, and eventually you reach a tippingpoint where the total melt starts decliningrather than increasing. Beyond that criticalpoint, there’s simply not enough ice left tosupport the water flows that downstreamcommunities depend on.Scientists had thought South Americanshad 10, 20, or even 30 years to preparefor declining water. But Baraer found thatone of the major rivers fed by the high Andean glaciers, Peru’s RioSanta, is already in decline.“These years did not exist,”he says. Similar problemsmay already be brewing inneighbouring countries,particularly Bolivia andnorthern Chile, he says. Checking this outis the next step in his research.
GARRY CLARKE, A GLACIOLOGIST
from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, predicts an equally grimfuture for the glaciers of North America.But Clarke approaches it from anotherperspective: physics and modelling.Like many of his colleagues, Clarke has alifelong love of mountains. But he’s neverbeen a climber. “I don’t like falling off of things,” he laughs. As a child, however, hespent summers with his grandparents, whooperated a motel near Canada’s famed LakeLouise in the heart of Banff National Park.His interest in glaciers stepped up in 1962,when as an undergraduate physics studentat the University of Alberta, Edmonton,he was offered a summer job doing fieldresearch on a glacier in the Yukon.So, when a glacier-study job camearound, he snapped it up, refocussing hisentire career. For decades, he pioneeredmethods of studying glaciers, drilling intotheir depths to plant instruments at thebase, where ice meets rock and the realphysics of glacial flow begins. Instead of climbing, though, he flew in by helicopter– in Canada many glaciers are within anhour’s flight of highways. As the 1960s turned into the 1970s,1980s and 1990s, he noticed that themountains were changing. “It wasbecoming quite clear that the glacierswe were looking at were losing ground,”he says. Gradually, his mission changedfrom figuring out how glaciers functionto figuring out how they die. His basicfinding, presented at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December2011, was simple. Bye-bye ice. Using a mid-range greenhouse-gas emissions scenarioand an equally mid-range climate model,he calculated that the glaciers of Canada’sSaint Elias region near the Alaskan border,which now comprise 453 cubic kilometresof ice (spread over more surface area thanall glaciers of the European Alps) – willprobably be halved in size by 2100. “Andthat’s the good news,” he says.The bad news came from furthersouth, in the Canadian Rockies,where, he calculates, in someareas today’s glaciers will all butdisappear by 2100. Others willshrink to remnants ranging from5% to 20% of their current size. Over thenext 100 years, he says, “we think we will bewitness to the disappearance of the glaciersof western North America.“There will be a few that hang on, highup, but there won’t be glaciers in classicareas of the landscape such as the CanadianRockies. That’s going to be pretty muchdone with by the end of this century.” Incoming to this conclusion he’s been carefulnot to overstate the results. “The wholequestion of climate change is really fraught,”he says. “It’s important that what is said hasa lot of authority, rather than just addingmore static.”
N A S A P E A K P R O M O T I O N P E A K P R O M O T I O N