By Magdalena A K Muir
Sea levels are rising as climate change causes glaciers to melt. But it turns out rising seas may not be the only catastrophic by-product of glacier melt we need to worry about. A new study from researchers at Florida State University published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience has discovered there will be a substantial carbon impact resulting from the loss of glaciers and ice sheets that cover roughly 11 per cent of the Earth’s surface. Glaciers act as sinks for both local and distant sources of carbon, CO₂ that is then released downstream if and when the ice melts or breaks away into the sea.
Professors and researchers from Florida, Alaska and Switzerland, used measurements of ice sheets from Greenland, the Antarctic and mountain glaciers from around the world to determine just how much carbon was being stored there and how quickly they anticipate its release. Glaciers act as sinks for both local and distant sources of carbon, CO₂ that is then released downstream if and when the ice melts or breaks away into the sea. Robert Spencer, a professor of oceanography from Florida State and his colleague Eran Hood, an environmental scientist at the University of Alaska Southeast, predict in their study that the outflow of organic carbon will increase by 50 per cent by 2050.
Antarctic ice appears more stable than ice contained in Greenland or on mountain peaks. It’s the mountain glaciers that are likely to release the largest volume of dissolved organic carbon, while the Greenland sheets are projected to release the largest volume of particulate organic carbon. The Antarctic Ice Sheet contains roughly six petagrams of organic carbon (approximately six trillion kilograms) in its glacier ice, more than the carbon stored in mountain glaciers or the Greenland Ice Sheet.
In addition to storing greenhouse gases, mountain glaciers are globally important in terms of mountainous ecosystems and peoples, and in regulating regional water supply and global weather and hydrological systems. UNESCO’s Our Global Water Towers: Ensuring Ecosystem Services from Mountains under Climate Change, and Vox Naturae – Celebrating Glaciers provide further information on these crucial roles of mountain glaciers. The Stakeholder Forum Outreach magazine article, Integrating Adaptive Responses for Mountains and Watershed, Focusing on the Andes and the Himalaya Mountains, and the World Bank report, World Bank report – On Thin Ice: How Cutting Pollution Can Slow Warming and Save Lives discuss climate and pollution impacts and how to reduce the pace of change.
Through events combining art, science and nature Vox Naturae communicates to a global audience what retreating glaciers are telling us to generate public awareness and stimulate a response to the changes taking place.