This month in climate realities: Glacial meltdown, ancient diseases, and more

As massive ice sheets around the world recede, Eurasian glacier health is in a precarious state, reported a conjunction of environmental studies this month. Just days after scientists raised the alarm that Arctic permafrost was thawing 70 years sooner than predicted, reports emerged of glaciers melting in Greenland; it has lost an unprecedented 2 billion tons of ice this week.

To make matters worse for the developing world, on Friday, June 21, a Cold War-era spy camera found that Himalayan glaciers were being ravaged by rising temperatures in the Indian subcontinent, posing a grave danger to downstream communities.

A landmark biodiversity report last month claimed 1 million animal and plant species are in danger. This month, environmentalists reported that the world’s second-largest emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica had vanished due to “breeding failures”, the research team at the British Antarctic Survey said in a statement. The colony at Halley Bay collapsed in 2016, with more than 10,000 chicks lost, and the population has not recovered, according to a recent study.

Devastating pictures of an emaciated polar bear entering a Russian industrial city, hundreds of miles away from its natural hunting habitat, and scavenging for food in a Siberian rubbish dump, also emerged this week.

Glaciers are a direct indicator of temperature

Recently, a group of researchers carbon-dated plants collected at the edges of 30 ice caps on Baffin Island, the world’s fifth-largest island in the Canadian Inuit territory off Greenland.

They published their findings recently in the journal Nature Communications, concluding, “The Arctic is currently warming two to three times faster than the rest of the globe, so naturally, glaciers and ice caps are going to react faster.”

NASA’s latest aircraft observations corroborated this. Data reflected that temperatures have leaped 40 degrees above normal as the Arctic Ocean and Greenland, which holds an ice sheet that’s two and a half times the size of Rajasthan, see record levels of melting.

The Jakobshavn Glacier, which produced the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, is 40-mile long and was once a mile in thickness. But since 2012, the record-setting melt year, it has been fast-moving and thinning quickly. According to The Economist, Greenland is currently losing 3 billion tons of ice every day, roughly three times the average for mid-June in 1981-2010.

This much melting this early in the summer could be a bad sign; according to experts, it is indicative that 2019 could once again set records for the amount of Greenland ice loss.

Greenland has been an increasing contributor to global sea level rise over the last two decades, and surface melting and runoff is a large portion of that.

This year, a high-pressure ridge pulled up warm, humid air from the Central Atlantic into the island, causing warmer temperatures over the ice. and preventing precipitation that led to clear, sunny skies.

Over the last week or two, that high-pressure ridge got even stronger as another high-pressure front moved in from the eastern US—the one that caused the prolonged hot and dry period in the Southeast earlier this month, CNN reported.

Will the Himalayas weather this storm?

An unprecedented development has also chipped away at the Himalayan glaciers—spanning 2,000 kilometres and harbouring some 600 billion tons of ice. They were found to have lost more than a quarter of their ice mass since 1975, with melting occurring twice as fast after the turn of the century as average temperatures rose.

A team of researchers from Columbia University reviewed 40 years of satellite observations across India, China, Nepal, and Bhutan and found that Himalayan glaciers have been retreating rapidly over the last two decades, due to an average 1 degree Celsius temperature rise in the region.

The mountains supply around 800 million people with water for irrigation, hydropower, and drinking; however, as per CNN, they have been losing almost half a metre of ice each year since the start of this century.

Short-term impact includes flooding, but less ice in the glaciers could ultimately lead to drought. Recently, the glaciers have lost around 8 billion tons of water a year, according to the researchers behind the study, which could potentially threaten water supplies for hundreds of millions of people across parts of Asia.

Also read: Chennai’s acute water crisis: How bad is the situation really?

Not just Eurasia, glaciers are melting everywhere

Even though Greenland is caught in a cycle of constant expansion and recession, the rate of freezing is not enough to catch up with the exponential rates of melting.

The same goes for Montana’s Glacier National Park, which, despite growing, will be glacier-free by 2030, according to scientists. In southern Chile, the Pia Glacier is no exception. Even at the South Pole, a study of 25 years of satellite data has shown that warming ocean waters are causing the ice to thin so rapidly that 24% of the glacier ice in West Antarctica is now affected.

Writing for The Globe and Mail, visual artist Bettina Matzkuhn says, “On a visit to the [British] Columbia Icefields in Alberta, I walked past markers showing where the ice had reached in different years. The glacier’s toe has pulled back two kilometres from its position in the late 1800s.”

The biggest threat, however, belies the permafrost across the Siberian and Alaskan tundra regions. Under normal circumstances, about 50cm of permafrost layers melt during the summer. But now, global warming is gradually melting older permafrost layers.

A team of researchers used a modified propeller plane to visit exceptionally remote sites in the Canadian Arctic, which hosts about 30% of the glaciers in the world. They were shocked to witness an unrecognisable landscape that was far from pristine and was, instead, studded with waist-high depressions and ponds. Vegetation, once sparse, has now flourished in the shelter of constant wind and cloud.

Pandora’s box of diseases

For humanity, the particularly salient question now is how quickly these massive stores of ice will melt into the sea. Even though movement due to tectonic shifts catalyses the meltdown, it ultimately depends on how much heat-trapping carbon we decide to pump into the atmosphere.

But rising sea levels, the loss of human habitat and threats to marine biodiversity aside, the glacial meltdown caused by man-made global warming has other repercussions as well.

In August 2016, a 12-year-old boy died and at least 20 people were hospitalised after getting infected by anthrax. This happened in the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle, a remote corner of Siberian tundra.

Frozen permafrost soil is quite possibly the perfect place for bacteria to remain alive for long periods of time, perhaps even as long as a million years. But climate change is melting permafrost areas that have been frozen for thousands of years.

As the permafrost melts, the ancient bacteria and viruses that have been frozen spring back to life with the warming of Earth’s climate. Scientists are also concerned that rapid thawing could lead to a release of nuclear waste and heat-trapping gases underneath, unleashing a feedback loop that would in turn fuel even faster temperature rises.

For example, deep inside the layers of 1,200-year-old ice caps on the Andes Mountains in Peru are traces of lead and mercury, the chemicals used after the Spanish Occupation, in the silver mines of Potosi, Bolivia. Similarly, many modern glacial formations may melt to release fossilised radioactive material.

That’s not all; the impact of a glacial meltdown on settlements extends not only to coastal communities but also those staying at the foothills. For example, a menacing black glacier is reportedly bulldozing its way down a valley in northern Pakistan, threatening to cut off a vital road link to China and blocking melt-water that could flood the villages below. Glacial lakes are also forming where communities once flourished, as is the case with the Himalayas.

The answer, once again, lies in reducing carbon emissions, switching to renewables, and practising sustainable tourism in and around vulnerable glaciers.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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