What’s happening to the world’s glaciers?

Megan Hall:  Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall.

Today, we have a question from one of our reporters, Kolya Shields. What do you have for us, Kolya?  

Kolya Shields: I keep seeing timelapse photos showing ice sheets shrinking faster and faster. That made me curious about the impacts of this melting, and what we might be able to do about it.

Megan Hall: We had Janek Schaller from our Possibly team help Kolya look into it. Welcome, Janek and Kolya!

Janek Schaller: Hi, Megan!

Kolya Shields: Hello!

Megan Hall: So, first of all, what are glaciers, and why should we be worried about them melting?

Kolya Shields: Well, in short, Glaciers are large formations of ice and snow that slowly flow across land and stay frozen during the warm seasons. 

Janek Schaller: To learn more, we spoke to Paul Mayewski.

Paul Mayewski: “I’m the director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine”

Kolya Shields: Paul says offically, glaciers have to be tall enough for ice to accumulate on the top and “flow” to the bottom. That means they’re usually at least 30 feet thick. But…

Paul Mayewski: … glaciers come in all all sizes… the largest is obviously, the Antarctic ice sheet, which is one and a half times the area of the United States. 

Megan Hall: Wow! That’s a lot of ice! 

Yeah, but they’re shrinking. According to a recent study, glaciers across the world are losing about 267 gigatonnes of ice a year.

Megan Hall: Which means?

Kolya Shields: To put that in perspective, just one gigaton is equal to about 10,000 fully loaded aircraft carriers. 

Megan Hall: I’m guessing this is happening because of climate change?

Janek Schaller: Yes, but it’s not just that it’s getting warmer. Because it’s warmer the white snow that covers glaciers melts away, and reveals a darker ice surface, which absorbs more heat and speeds up the melting process.  

Megan Hall: So they’re melting faster and faster. But why are people so worried about it? 

Kolya Shields: Paul has some insight into that question:

Paul Mayewski: “If you were to melt something like the Greenland ice sheet, sea level would probably rise close to 20 or 30 feet. And of course, the Antarctic ice sheet is a lot larger”

Kolya Shields: So far, about half of the sea level rise we’ve experienced is the result of melting glaciers, the rest is from the expansion of ocean water as it warms.

Megan Hall: So- more melting glaciers means more coastal flooding?

Kolya Shields: Yes. They definitely contribute to the rising waters all around us.

Janek Schaller: And Paul says melting glaciers do more than increase sea levels — they also affect water supplies for some communities.

Paul Mayewski: “For the people who live in places like the Himalayas, the Andes, anybody in Europe for that matter, depending on where you live in Alaska, loss of glaciers is a tremendous change.”

Janek Schaller: And we’re not just talking about a few communities. Melted glaciers meet the water needs of more than 200 million people every year. 

Kolya Shields: Now, it’s unlikely we’ll lose all of these glaciers in our lifetimes, but scientists estimate that at the current rate of melting, up to 80 percent of the world’s glaciers will disappear by the end of the century. 

Megan Hall: That sounds pretty bad. Is there anything we can do about this?

Janek Schaller: There are a lot of interesting ideas out there- like snow machines, or covering glaciers with white blankets so they don’t melt as fast.

Janek Schaller: But according to Matthias Huss, a glaciologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zoo-rick, those strategies have their limits–

Matthias Huss: “you can theoretically make an impact, slightly reduce the melting of glaciers. But as soon as if you try to apply to bigger areas, it gets incredibly expensive.”

Janek Schaller: Matthias says we should focus on the real solution—-

Matthias Huss: “There’s only one way… we need to reduce CO2 emissions, which will eventually stabilize climate”

Kolya Shields: In short, the only sure-fire way to combat this problem is to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions very quickly!

Megan Hall: Got it! Thanks, Kolya and Janek.

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter- at “ask possibly” 

Possibly is a co-production of The Public’s Radio,  Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society, and Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative.

The post What’s happening to the world’s glaciers? appeared first on TPR: The Public's Radio.