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Rewind: Sizing Up the Earth’s Glaciers

February 14, 2011

NASA Earth Observatory reports: Visit the world’s high mountain ranges and you’ll probably see less ice and snow today than you would have a few decades ago. More than 110 glaciers have disappeared from Montana’s Glacier National Park over the past 150 years, and researchers estimate that the park’s remaining 37 glaciers may be gone in another 25 years. Half a world away on the African equator, Hemingway’s snows of Kilimanjaro are steadily melting and could completely disappear in the next 20 years. And in the Alps, glaciers are retreating and disappearing every year, much to the dismay of mountain climbers, tourist agencies, and environmental researchers.

2010 USGS Report
This chapter is the ninth to be released in U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1386, Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World, a series of 11 chapters. In each of the geographic area chapters, remotely sensed images, primarily from the Landsat 1, 2, and 3 series of spacecraft, are used to analyze the specific glacierized region of our planet under consideration and to monitor glacier changes. Download all reports on their website.

2004 NASA Earth Observatory Reports
According to Jeffrey Kargel, a USGS scientist, glaciers in the Himalaya are wasting at alarming and accelerating rates, as indicated by comparisons of satellite and historic data, and as shown by the widespread, rapid growth of lakes on the glacier surfaces. According to a 2001 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scientists estimate that surface temperatures could rise by 1.4xC to 5.8xC by the end of the century. The researchers have found a strong correlation between increasing temperatures and glacier retreat.

Whatever the Cause, the Earth is Heating Up
According to an ongoing temperature analysis conducted by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and shown in this series of maps, the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8°Celsius (1.4°Fahrenheit) since 1880. Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975, at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20°C per decade.

A one-degree global change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all the oceans, atmosphere, and land by that much. In the past, a one- to two-degree drop was all it took to plunge the Earth into the Little Ice Age. A five-degree drop was enough to bury a large part of North America under a towering mass of ice 20,000 years ago.

In the past decade (2000-2009), land temperature changes are 50 percent greater in the United States than ocean temperature changes; two to three times greater in Eurasia; and three to four times greater in the Arctic and the Antarctic Peninsula. Warming of the ocean surface has been largest over the Arctic Ocean, second largest over the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans, and third largest over most of the Atlantic Ocean.

World of Change
Earth is constantly changing. Some changes are a natural part of the climate system, such as the seasonal expansion and contraction of the Arctic sea ice pack. The responsibility for other changes, such as the Antarctic ozone hole, falls squarely on humanity’s shoulders. Our World of Change series documents how our planet’s land, oceans, atmosphere, and Sun are changing over time.

Click here to view maps; click maps to view changes;

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