I fell in love with the first glacier I stepped upon — the Mer de Glace in France. Since I’ve been on numerous glaciers — the Lyell Glacier in Yosemite, where I managed to fall into the only crevasse on the glacier (I was alone and no one knew where I was, but luckily I didn’t fall very far); the Baltoro and Khumbu glaciers in Pakistan and Nepal that sweep down from the two highest mountains in the world; and the Kahiltna Glacier on Denali, where I spent one of the most beautiful evenings in my life, skiing miles and miles downhill from a climb we’d just completed, surrounded by ice crystals glittering in the 11 p.m. sunlight.
So when I heard the film “Chasing Ice” was showing at Sierra Nevada College’s Sustainability Film Festival last weekend, I had to go see it. Photographer James Balog and his crew went to the cold edges of the world and brought back news that is not good. “Chasing Ice” is a documentary about Balog’s time-lapse photography during a five-year period of glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana, glaciers that are retreating at an unprecedented rate. In the film, Balog calls glaciers the canary in the coal mine of climate change.
At current rates of retreat, Yosemite’s Lyell Glacier will be gone in 20 years. All of the glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park are expected to be gone by 2020 — just seven years from now. Greenland’s Helheim Glacier retreated an astonishing 4.5 miles between 2001 and 2005, at a rate of 115 feet a day. Alaska’s Columbia Glacier has retreated 9.3 miles in the last 25 years.
Geologist Daniel Fagre, who studies Montana glaciers, told National Geographic’s Daniel Glick, “Things that normally happen in geologic time are happening during the span of a human lifetime. It’s like watching the Statue of Liberty melt.”
So what? Who cares about glaciers besides geologists and mountaineers like me who think they’re some of the most majestic and beautiful features of our world?
There is the relationship between the ice and the sea. While sea levels have risen and fallen throughout Earth’s history, the International Panel on Climate Change says that the recent rate of global sea level rise has departed from the average rate of the 3,000 years and is rising more rapidly — about one-tenth of an inch a year. The expansion of water as it warms is the biggest factor contributing to sea level rise, but next are the melting of glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet. In their latest estimates, the IPCC gives a range of sea level rise of 10 to 32 inches by the end of the century.
For the lower sea level rise, the IPCC assumes aggressive measures to combat climate change. The higher scenario — 32 inches — assumes no effort to halt climate change. (Climate change denialists take note: Your efforts are leading us to this scenario.)
Thirty-two inches is close to a meter, and it is estimated that worldwide a hundred million people live within a meter of sea level. Major cities less than a meter above sea level include New York, Galveston, Jakarta and Tokyo. In the U.S., 3.7 million people live at or below the one-meter level. Now there are some people who might care about how fast glaciers are melting.
Anne Macquarie blogs about clean energy and climate change in Nevada at nevadanscleanenergy.org.