Glaciers and Climate Change

While our trip is now over and we’re back home in Minneapolis, we are catching up on a final post or two about our experiences in the Arctic, in Svalbard, Norway, where we were about 800 miles from the North Pole.

On our return flight to Minneapolis, we flew over the southern part of Greenland, and were treated to a crystal clear day and a truly incredible sight.  The blinding whiteness of the Greenland ice cap, stretching as far to the north as the eye can see.  And then glaciers, everywhere, flowing down the mountainous coast of Greenland and into the sea.   We also saw several glaciers when we were in Svalbard, and got quite close to a few of them.

Greenland ice cap

Greenland ice cap

Glacier flowing into the sea, Greenland

Glacier flowing into the sea, Greenland

What are glaciers?

Glaciers are slow rivers of ice that flow from higher elevations to lower elevations, typically moving at speeds of about 3 feet per day, though some can move as much as 70-100 feet per day.  They are formed by snow at higher elevations being compacted into ice, and then by the weight of the new ice pushing older ice down a mountain slope.  When looking at a glacier it appears fixed and unmoving.  But get close to it, and you can hear and see that it is not.  Especially if the glacier ends in the ocean or a body of water, as you approach, you’ll see bits of ice floating all around.  Within earshot, you’ll hear what sounds like creaking and moaning.  These sounds are created by the slow movement of the glacier, by the ice pushing against itself and the ground below.  Occasionally what sounds like thunder will ring out, as chunks of the glacier break off and crash into the sea below, in a process called calving.

Jamie & Jason with Nordenskold Glacier, Svalbard

Jamie & Jason with Nordenskold Glacier, Svalbard

Kayakers approaching Esmarck Glacier, Svalbard

Kayakers approaching Esmarck Glacier, Svalbard

Jamie standing on some ice from Harriet Glacier (behind her), Svalbard

Jamie in front of Harriet Glacier, Svalbard

Here’s a link to a video of the largest glacial calving ever filmed.

Where are glaciers?

Glaciers require cold temperatures to form, and so are often found in places with high elevations as well as in high latitudes closer to the North and South poles.  On our trip we saw glaciers in Svalbard, but also learned about the problems changes in glaciers are causing in much warmer places, like Peru (look at our post about Arequipa).

Glaciers are alive… and sick

Glaciers can seem alive, with the sounds they make and because they are constantly in a state of flux, either growing or shrinking.  Glaciers grow when new ice at the top of a glacier is created faster than ice at the bottom is melting.  With the impacts of climate change, the vast majority of glaciers in the world are now getting smaller.  When a glacier gets smaller it is said to retreat.

Retreating Boulder glacier in Colorado, red line shows where it was in 1985 By User:Peltoms (Wikipedia) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Bouldert.jpg) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

Retreating Boulder glacier in Colorado, red line shows where it was in 1985
By User:Peltoms (Wikipedia) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Bouldert.jpg) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

We met some researchers in Svalbard who had been researching the same glacier for over 15 years.  Al Werner, of Mount Holyoke College and the Co-Director of Svalbard Research and Education for Undergraduates (REU), told us of when he first met the Linné Glacier, and how now, not only is it retreating, but it is also losing height.  He said it was almost like taking the plug out of an air mattress.

Climate change is being caused by the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases people are putting in the air.  The most common greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, which primarily comes from the burning of fossil fuels, like oil, gasoline, coal, and natural gas.  Greenhouse gases act like a blanket around the earth, and the increase in greenhouse gases is making the earth warmer.  The actual temperature changes in degrees can seem pretty small (about 1-3 degrees Fahrenheit in average air temperatures for example), but small changes like this can have big impacts.  The melting of glaciers can be impacted both by the warmer air and warmer oceans.

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Who cares?

Besides the fact that glaciers are incredibly beautiful, as glaciers melt, the water from them eventually runs into the oceans.  And over time, this raises sea levels around the world, so far since 1850 sea levels are about 8 inches higher.  With more water from melting glaciers (there are other factors but this is likely the main one), sea levels are forecast to rise 1-6 feet by the end of the century.  This may not seem like much, but according to a study done by the Institute for Demographic Research at the City University of New York, almost 1 in 10 people in the world live near the coast at elevations less than 30 feet above sea level.  Higher sea levels will make it difficult for these people to live where they do.  Some land will be underwater, but also rising sea levels increase flooding, especially as surges and waves from storms start from a higher level.

What can we do?

In order to stop climate change, we need to reduce the amount of fossil fuels that we burn. People can help by driving less, driving cars that use less gas, and using less energy at home or work — like turning off lights, TVs, and computers when they’re not being used.  People can also use other sources of energy like solar power and wind power.  Planting more trees and preserving forests and grasslands can also help as trees and plants convert carbon dioxide to oxygen

 

Study Guide Questions

1. True or False, glaciers are made of ice that never moves

2. How are glaciers made?

3. True or False, most glaciers in the world are shrinking, or retreating.

4. What is it called when part of the front of a glacier breaks off and falls into the sea?

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