Facts On Melting Glaciers

Looking for facts on melting glaciers?


According to Taylor RG, Mileham L, Tindimugaya C, Majugu A, Muwanga A and Nakileza B (2006) in “Recent glacial recession in the Rwenzori Mountains of East Africa due to rising air temperature”, the increased atmospheric temperature from global warming is the main factor for the melting of glaciers.

Global warming is the rise in average global temperature, and this increase in temperature has been taking place over the past century. In turn, global warming is tightly linked to the rapid industrial growth over the past century, where the use of fossil fuels in industries, offices and homes became rampant and the release of green house gasses like carbon dioxide became excessive and beyond what our remaining forests can absorb. The increased level of green house gases in turn leads to more heat trapped in the earth’s atmosphere, resulting in overall warmer temperatures. This increase in global temperature is the biggest cause of melting glaciers.

According to Wikipedia, the albedo (a measure of the reflective ability of a surface) of snow is about 0.8 to 0.9. This means that snow-covered glaciers can reflect back about 80% to 90% of the energy from the sun’s rays. So when ice on glaciers melts, the reflective properties of the glaciers are lost. The earth beneath the ice sheets gets uncovered. The glacier then absorbs more heat, which in turn causes more of its ice sheets to melt away. The result is reduced glacier mass.

Another less major cause of melting glaciers is the accumulation of dust, especially from volcanic eruptions, on the glacier’s surface. The glaciers absorb more sunlight when the surface of the glaciers is dusty, as the albedo or reflection ability of the glacier is reduced. This situation increases the surface temperature of the glacier, and causes more melting.


Glaciers are the world’s largest reservoirs of water on our planet. Hence, melting glaciers can create severe environmental havoc like rising sea levels, floods and water shortages in years to come. According to NASA, the average global sea level has risen 4 to 8 inches over the last century – this means about 3.27mm per year.

Arctic and Antarctica's ice also help cool the planet by reflecting the sun's radiation back into space. With melting glaciers and less ice, most of the heat that was previously reflected back into space would be absorbed by the open water, leading to a warmer environment. The warmer environment causes more glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise. According to Kaser, G., J.G. Cogley, M.B. Dyurgerov, M.F. Meier and A. Ohmura (2006) in “Mass balance of glaciers and ice caps: Consensus estimates for 1961-2004”, it is estimated that the melting glaciers and ice caps of non polar regions contribute about 0.4mm rise in sea level yearly from 1961 to 1990, and about 1.0mm rise yearly from 2001 to 2004.

The water frozen in ice caps is actually fresh water. In fact, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, glaciers contain around 70% of the earth’s freshwater. So when these ice caps melt, the water that reaches the oceans will mix with the saline ocean water, causing the desalination the ocean (i.e. make it less salty). The desalinization of the oceanic water can upset ecosystems in the oceans because the marine animals and plants cannot adjust to the changes in the water salinity fast enough. In addition, ocean currents which regulate temperatures may also be affected.

Melting glaciers can also release energy constrained in the earth’s crust and trigger massive earthquakes. Read more about the impact of glaciers melting.

According to the IPCC, the widespread melting glaciers and snow cover loss in the mountain ranges (e.g. Himalaya) can lead to freshwater availability problems and reduction in hydroelectricity outputs for communities (about 1/6 of the world’s population) living around the region.


Global temperature rise in recent years is melting glaciers at a faster rate today than a few decades ago. The rate of melting is so great that many glaciers have completely vanished from the earth over the past few decades. Many glaciers that remain are today facing the same fate – they are fast reducing in size year after year.

According to National Geographic, at the Arctic, glaciers are melting at such extremely rapid rate that some studies suggest that Arctic could become ice-free in summer by 2030 if the current trend of global warming continues.

According to NASA, Greenland is losing about 100 billion tons of land ice every year.

Antarctica glaciers are also melting but not as fast as the Arctic ones. Gravity data obtained from space using NASA's Grace satellite showed that at the Antarctica, glaciers are melting at a rate of more than 100 km3 (or 24 cubic miles) yearly since 2002.

The Himalayan glaciers are also melting at a very fast rate. For example, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), glacier Chhota Shigri has retreated by 12% in the last 13 years, while glacier Gangotri (where the Ganga River starts) has retreated by 12% in the last 16 years.

The situation will only become worse.

Unless we start working on reducing global warming, if not stopping it altogether.

We can make a difference – by spreading the message on the need to go green, adopting green living principles and practices in our daily lives, switching to greener energy sources like renewable energy, and switching to environmentally friendly products instead using the conventional ones that tend to be more polluting.

And we need to start doing all these real soon, before all our glaciers melt away.

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