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Scientists make unsettling new discovery about Earth's glaciers

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer
April 19, 2019, 8:49:55 AM EDT

The world’s glaciers aren't quite melting at the same glacial pace they typically have, according to a new study. Glaciers around the planet are melting five times faster now than they were in the 1960s, which is causing them to shrink much faster than originally believed, scientists say, and the implications of this glacial retreating could have far-reaching consequences in the not-too-distant future.

The study, published recently in the journal Nature, revealed glaciers are losing a staggering 369 billion tons of snow and ice each year, and more than half of that melting is occurring in North America.

"Present mass-loss rates indicate that glaciers could almost disappear in some mountain ranges in this century, while heavily glacierized regions will continue to contribute to sea-level rise beyond 2100," the researchers wrote.

Glacier melt

In this photo taken May 2018 and released by Yulong Snow Mountain Glacier and Environmental Observation Research Station on Oct. 18, 2018, the Baishui Glacier No.1 is visible next to a tourist viewing platform high in the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the southern province of Yunnan in China. Scientists say the glacier is one of the fastest melting glaciers in the world due to climate change and its relative proximity to the Equator. It has lost 60 percent of its mass and shrunk 250 meters since 1982. (Yulong Snow Mountain Glacier and Environmental Observation Research Station via AP)

The research team, consisting of scientists from universities in Europe and Canada, used more ground and satellite measurements than previous studies to analyze 19,000 glaciers, making it one of the most comprehensive measurements of glaciers worldwide.

They found that thousands of inland masses of snow compressed into ice are shrinking 18 percent faster than an international panel of scientists calculated in 2013.

The glaciers shrinking fastest are in central Europe, the Caucasus region, western Canada, the U.S. Lower 48 states, New Zealand and near the tropics. Glaciers in these places are losing more than 1 percent of their mass each year on average, according to the study.

The scientists determined that southwestern Asia is the only region of 19 where glaciers are not shrinking.

Peru Melting Glaciers

In this Aug. 12, 2016, a block of ice is seen in the lagoon next to Pastoruri glacier in the Huascaran National Park in Huaraz, Peru. The melting of glaciers like the Pastoruri has put cities like Huaraz, located downslope from the glacier about 35 miles (55 kilometers) away, at risk from what scientists call a “glof,” or glacial lake outburst flood. A glof occurs when the weak walls of a mountain valley collapse under the weight of meltwater from a glacier. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

Rising seas threaten coastal cities around the world and put more people at risk of flooding during storms. Glaciers grow in winter and shrink in summer, but as the Earth has warmed, they are growing less and shrinking more.

A separate study in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters, recently confirmed faster melting and other changes in the Arctic. It found that in winter, the Arctic is warming 2.8 times faster than the rest of the Northern Hemisphere. Overall, the region is getting more humid, cloudier and wetter.

The Arctic is now trending away from its previous state and into a period of unprecedented change, with implications not only within but also beyond the Arctic, according to researchers.

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According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, Alaska is the fastest-warming U.S. state, with temperatures rising, along with the rest of the Arctic, at twice the global average rate. In fact, Alaska just experienced its warmest March on record, according to NOAA. The average temperature state-wide in March was 26.7 degrees Fahrenheit, NOAA reported, some 15.9 degrees F above the long-term average. March shattered the all-time monthly average previously set in 1965 by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit.

Herbert Glacier in Alaska

This photo taken in 2017 shows Herbert Glacier near Juneau, Alaska. Research has shown that the glacier has been retreating and the effects of that could have negative impacts on the local ecosystem. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

It's worth noting that the average temperature for the contiguous U.S. in March was 40.68 degrees Fahrenheit, 0.82 of a degree Fahrenheit below the 20th-century average. However, the record-high average temperatures in Alaska continued a trend that has resulted in the last six-year period being the warmest in the entire state's history since record keeping began, the National Weather Service said.

The effects of this warmup are revealing themselves in many ways. A significant decrease in Bering Sea ice was observed following the record warmth in March. Alaskans depend on ice roads for essential transportation, hunting and recreation. Frozen rivers that connect rural villages to highways and in turn connect to the rest of the state are now free-flowing, according to a report by Reuters. Usually at this time of year, they're still frozen. People traveling on frozen rivers via snowmobile have fallen through the ice, and some have died as a result.

And, of course, the increased glacier melt is perhaps one of the most dramatic outcomes. It's not just humans who are at risk from the rapidly melting glaciers in North America. According to a recently published New York Times report, other animal species are at risk of dying out due to changes to their ecosystem brought on by the increased glacier melt.

Alexander M. Milner, a professor of river ecosystems at the University of Birmingham in England, has been studying the impacts of glacier melt for years and he told the Times that the increased glacier melt can lead to small changes that affect the life spans of small insects or even bacteria that live in the water in the Herbert River, which is sourced by ice melt from the nearby Herbert Glacier.

They're at risk of extinction, he said, which in turn would present salmon with an existential threat since those insects and bacteria that have evolved to thrive in the cold glacial water are a large part of the salmon's diet. If the glaciers disappear completely, he said, so will the insects and bacteria, causing a gap to open in the food chain. That, in turn, could have a ripple effect.

“In this part of the world, salmon are just really important for economies and cultures,” Jonathan Moore, an ecologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, told the Times. Researchers aren't precisely sure what the impacts of glacier melt on Alaska salmon might be, but they've convened a group to study the phenomenon more closely.

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