The Consequences of Global Warming
On Glaciers and Sea Levels
Arctic summers could be ice-free by 2040, and sea levels could rise as much as 23 inches by 2100 if current warming patterns continue.
Melting Glaciers, Early Ice Thaw
Rising global temperatures will speed the melting of glaciers and ice caps and cause early ice thaw on rivers and lakes.
Warning signs today:
- After existing for many millennia, the northern section of the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica -- a section larger than the state of Rhode Island -- collapsed between January and March 2002, disintegrating at a rate that astonished scientists. Since 1995, the ice shelf's area has shrunk by 40 percent.
- According to NASA, the polar ice cap is now melting at the alarming rate of nine percent per decade. Arctic ice thickness has decreased 40 percent since the 1960s.
- Arctic sea ice extent set an all-time record low in September 2007, with almost half a million square miles less ice than the previous record set in September 2005, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Over the past 3 decades, more than a million square miles of perennial sea ice -- an area the size of Norway, Denmark and Sweden combined -- has disappeared.
- Multiple climate models indicate that sea ice will increasingly retreat as the earth warms. Scientists at the U.S. Center for Atmospheric Research predict that if the current rate of global warming continues, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer by 2040.
- At the current rate of retreat, all of the glaciers in Glacier National Park will be gone by 2070.
Current rates of sea-level rise are expected to increase as a result both of thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of most mountain glaciers and partial melting of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice caps. Consequences include loss of coastal wetlands and barrier islands, and a greater risk of flooding in coastal communities. Low-lying areas, such as the coastal region along the Gulf of Mexico and estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay, are especially vulnerable.
Warning signs today:
- Global sea level has already risen by 4 to 8 inches in the past century, and the pace of sea level rise appears to be accelerating. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that sea levels could rise 10 to 23 inches by 2100, but in recent years sea levels have been rising faster than the upper end of the range predicted.
- In the 1990s, the Greenland ice mass remained stable, but the ice sheet has increasingly declined in recent years. This melting currently contributes an estimated one-hundredth of an inch per year to global sea level rise.
- Greenland holds 10 percent of the total global ice mass. If it melts, sea levels could increase by up to 21 feet.
Photo credits: melting glacier: Photodisc; sea level rise: Photodisc.
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