Glaciers and Global Warming

Global warming’s impact on glaciers is concerning, with rising temperatures contributing to collapsing ice shelves. The result is glaciers that are thinning, shrinking and accelerating, leading to alterations in ocean water composition as well as flooding potential. Areas from the Antarctic to Bolivia have already experienced severe events as a result of disappearing glaciers and consequential glacial floods.


The Antarctic Peninsula is experiencing very visible changes due to climate change, especially because of its northern latitude and small size. Its glaciers are receding and thinning due to warmer temperatures. Since thinning glaciers float easily, they contribute to sea levels, which are rising at a rate of about 3 mm per year, impacting global flooding.


Collapsing Ice Shelves


Several prominent ice shelves have collapsed rapidly, such as the Larsen Ice Shelf in 2002. The deterioration primarily occurred over one summer, marking the first time it collapsed in the past 10,000 years. Ice shelves around the Pine Island Glacier continue to recede as well, caused by warm ocean water.


These events are set in motion by warming that many scientists attribute to buildup of greenhouse gases and burning fossil fuels. Record-high average annual surface temperatures continue to pop up, impacting everything from ocean temperature to distribution of ice. Despite floating ice not altering sea level, the collapse of the Larsen Ice Shelf put many on notice, considering that if the West Antarctic ice sheet collapsed similarly, it could raise the sea level by nearly 20 feet. Such an event would be catastrophic for many areas.


The Importance of Glaciers


With the Larsen Ice Shelf and similar events strongly showing a correlation between rising temperatures and eroding glaciers, the importance of glaciers in general is something to consider when combating global warming. What many overlook is the monumental impact glaciers can have on both the aquatic habitat and role in identifying global warming. Melting freshwater from glaciers can alter the ocean water’s makeup, pushing down the heavier salt water and altering the water’s thermohaline circulation in the process.


Considerable alteration of ocean water has many effects on the aquatic habitat, though it’s also worth considering the role of glaciers as indicators of climate change. They are considered a visible demonstration of global warming, with the additional potential to alter climate patterns in very specific ways, such as how glacier surfaces reflect sun’s rays and keep the climate more mild in response. Without the reflection of glaciers, exposed surfaces will absorb and release the heat, raising the temperature.

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Glaciers and Floods


Glaciers collapsing and eroding can have a significant impact on the climate, as well as flooding. Disappearing glaciers can cause slopes to be destabilized, creating landslides that have destroyed towns already in Peru and beyond. Cities located downslope from a glacier, such as Huaraz in Peru, are at risk of GLOF, a glacial lake outburst flood. This occurs when a valley’s weakening walls collapse due to glacier meltwater weight.


The combination of rising temperatures and increased global flooding can have catastrophic consequences and leave cities in ruins. The fear of glacial floods goes beyond Antarctica and Greenland, with Bolivia and Peru already experiencing the combination. Glaciers can be an extremely lethal force of erosion, cutting deep valleys and priming the landscape to their whim.


New Zealand, the Himalayas, Peru and Bolivia have all experienced glacial lake floods with some level of catastrophe, ranging from wiped-out villages to destruction of fields. With many scientists anticipating  Bolivian glaciers will be gone by the end of the century, glacial patterns in relation to global warming remain a priority for scientists everywhere.