Glaciers worldwide are disappearing even faster than we realized

Going, going, gone.
Going, going, gone.
Image: Copernicus Sentinel data, 2017
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A new study that surveyed 19,000 glaciers—a far higher number than in previous research—shows that most of them are melting, fast. Glaciers are shedding about 335 billion tons of ice per year—or fully three times the ice volume stored in the entirety of the European Alps.

The research, published in the journal Nature on April 8, found that the world lost 10.6 trillion tons of ice and snow from 1961 to 2016, which is enough volume to cover the US’s lower 48 states in 4 ft (1.2 m) of ice.

In fact, ice melt from glaciers globally is responsible for as much as 30% of current sea-level rise, a much higher portion than calculated by smaller studies, which relied on data from just a few hundred glaciers. Among melting glaciers, those in Alaska contribute the most to rising sea levels, followed by ones in Patagonia and the Arctic region as a whole. “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.

An unrelated study published on April 9 in the journal The Cryosphere found that more than 90% of all glacier mass in the European Alps could be lost by 2100, which aligns with the Nature study.

Looking at ice loss over time, the culprit is excruciatingly obvious: climate change. “Over 30 years suddenly almost all regions started losing mass at the same time. That’s clearly climate change if you look at the global picture,” Michael Zemp, the study’s lead author and director of the World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich, told the Associated Press.

The only place where glaciers aren’t currently shrinking is southwestern Asia. In every single one of the 18 other glacial regions in the world, they are receding. The rate of shrinkage is fastest in western Canada, the US lower 48 states, central Europe, New Zealand, and the Caucasus region.

At the current loss rate, the glaciers in these regions “will not survive the century,” Zemp told the Associated Press.