Study 2100 Projection Date for End of all Small Glaciers

A recent study published in Nature Geoscience asserts increasing dangers of future global warming. The study, performed by US and Canadian scientists, asserts that, even if CO2 emissions are brought under control this century, the global warming process will continue to progress.  The study projected that a number of negative consequences will follow from this reality, and was notable for reaching numerical estimates fairly consistent with earlier estimates from the IPCC.

One focus of the study was the topic of ‘small glaciers.’  These ice deposits formed by centuries of snowfall, which are currently present in many of the high altitude land areas of our planet, are expected to shrink quite a bit by the year 2100.  This could be a problem.  The lack of glaciers will result in a lack of summer glacier melt, with the end result that mountain-fed rivers in multiple regions of our planet will experience a sharp decrease of summer flow.  The final link in that chain of causality would be crop failures and lack of summer water for various other human needs. Scientists from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, who conducted that research, predict that melting glaciers and ice caps will be responsible for increases in sea levels of 8.7-16.1cm by 2100.  Some glaciers, like those in the European Alps, may nearly disappear this century, while in Asia the decrease may only be around 10 to 15%, hopefully allowing vital cultivation of crops in that area to continue.  

 The bad news from the study continues into the area of the far future. The researchers expect the warming of the world ocean to continue. Their estimate at this point is a warming of nine degrees Fahrenheit in the oceans surrounding Antarctica over the next 1000 years. The expectation is that this warm water will exert a melting effect on the enormous sheet of ice which tops the Antarctic Continent.  That effect is ominous, as melting of that ice sheet could result in a sea level rise of at least thirteen feet and possibly more, thereby gradually rendering many coastal communities uninhabitable due to flooding, and forcing a massive migration of humans away from flooded cities to higher ground. 

In general, this latest study is “more of the same” for global warming research. Like many other studies published since 2007, it predicts some seriously damaging consequences of global warming this century in the area of small glacier melt, but reserves the really horrible consequences of Greenland and Antarctic ice melt a bit farther into the future. Because of that time delay, it will not be likely to impress climate change denialists.  Those willing to accept the research at face value, however, will be uneasy about the world that is likely to be inherited by humans several generations from now. Those willing to compare the scope of the problem described with the so-far ineffectual international efforts to deal with it may start to question if we are even on the road to eventual success in fighting global warming. Humans have argued incessantly for the past twenty years about this topic, but the result now is a rate of carbon emissions far higher than when the conversation started. Those higher emissions are, according to the scientists, driving the warming at a higher speed than was true twenty years ago.

The prospect of geoengineering looms as an eventual topic of international treaty-making, if the studies continue to post these kinds of ominous projections, and if international discussions on greenhouse gas reductions continue to fail.  Geoengineering is defined as “the deliberate large scale intervention in the earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming.” This latest study describes a planetary climate that is being driven by humans in a negative direction, so frustrated scientists are beginning to have conversations about using our technological powers to drive the climate in the opposite direction, toward cooling, despite the risks of ugly, unintended consequences.   


“Regionally differentiated contribution of mountain glaciers and ice caps to future sea-level rise” Valentina Radi & Regine Hock, Nature Geoscience, January 2011.