We Might Lose Two-Thirds of All Glaciers by the End of the Century

We might be among the final few generations that might be able to witness these pillars of ice due to rapidly melting glaciers.

by | Jan 18, 2023

Melting glaciers pose a real threat for the environment and human life.

via Unsplash

Glaciers have been shrinking in numbers since the 1950s, and while the rate at which they have been disappearing has been accelerating over the past decade, scientists have predicted that they may be melting away faster than we thought.

A team of scientists has found that two-thirds of the Earth’s glaciers could be lost by 2100. A team led by David Rounce, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering has predicted that the world could lose as much as 41 percent of its current total glacier mass by the end of this century.

80% of all glaciers could disappear by 2100, accounting for nearly 40% of the total glacier mass.

The report by David Rounce’s team suggests that policymakers have less than three years to establish some rules and means to avoid irreversible and catastrophic changes to our climate.

They used certain “shared socioeconomic pathways” (SSPs) – the scenarios of projected socioeconomic global changes up to 2100 – for modeling future scenarios for climate change. These were based on factors like:

  • population
  • economic growth
  • urbanization
  • education
  • innovation

While the impact of climate change is already being felt around the world, researchers have claimed that the window of opportunity to reverse the damage still remains. However, the study claims that we are too far gone to prevent significant loss.

It has been predicted that even in the best-case scenario where the causative emissions are at a low, the global mean temperature would still increase by +1.5°C (compared to a 4°C increase in the worst-case scenario). This means that we will still be losing more than 25 percent of the total glacier mass.

We might be losing one-fourth of our total glacial mass even in the best-case scenario.

The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) occurred about 20,000 years ago – the most recent period in our planet’s history where ice sheets were at their peak. This was the peak of the last Ice Age, where much of North America, northern Europe, and Asia were covered by ice sheets.

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), permanent summer ice covered nearly 8 percent of the Earth’s surface and one-fourth of the total land area. In comparison, glaciers today cover approximately:

  • 3 percent of Earth’s surface
  • 11 percent of Earth’s land area

Even though scientists have been working to bring these dwindling numbers under control, the situation is presumably getting worse with every passing year. 

It has been predicted that even in the best-case scenario where the causative emissions are at a low, the global mean temperature would still increase by +1.5°C (compared to a 4°C increase in the worst-case scenario). This means that we will still be losing more than 25 percent of the total glacier mass.

Why are we so worried about these hunks of ice?

The Earth has been getting warmer, more rapidly in some areas than others. Most researchers believe that emissions caused by human activity are the primary cause behind this, particularly the increase in greenhouse gases caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

As you might expect, the rising temperature would melt the ice all around the world. The impact is so serious, in fact, that nearly 95 percent of the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has already melted away. As more water flows from these glaciers and ice caps into rivers and oceans, the sea level increases.

During the Last Glacial Maximum, the global sea level was more than 400 feet lower than what it is today. Beginning about 15,000 years ago, the sea levels began to rise, reaching their current height after a few thousand years.

The global average sea level has risen by about 8 inches (21 cm) since 1900. This is measly, however, compared to what would happen if all the ice caps and glaciers on Earth were to melt away.

According to the USGS, the complete melting of all ice caps and glaciers on Earth would rise the global sea level by about 230 feet, or 70 meters. This will be flooding every coastal city on the planet.

A study from 2019 published in the journal Nature Communications, if the sea levels continue to rise at this rate, 250 million of the world’s population may not be able to survive the flooding of their homes.

The overall impact of these melting glaciers on human life will be widespread, with disruptions in the food web and loss of life from natural disasters being one of the most worried about consequences.