Glaciers are spectacular natural phenomena and have been part of the Earth for eons. Their icy white and blue-looking expanse are eye-catching and beautiful. Yet most people living today have never seen one in real life. That’s because glaciers develop in very cold and hostile environments, mainly near the poles of the planet or in high mountains and places that are not comfortable to live in. Most people spend their lives closer to the equator. Populations get smaller as you go farther toward the extreme north or south.
A glacier builds itself slowly and requires only three ingredients: time, precipitation and cold temperatures. The process begins with an accumulation of snow in a large enough area. Since the snow is bright and white, the surface then reflects the sun’s rays by sending them away from it like a mirror. So in addition to developing in a cold zone, no warmth gets to the incipient glacier. In time, many layers add on to the original ones and ice starts to form. Along the years and the countless seasons, the ice layers condense and get thicker and thicker until a glacier is formed.
Once it is formed, like almost everything in nature, the glacier starts growing, moving and spreading itself toward its sides. Don’t forget, snow continues to fall on top of the glacier and its weight pushes it down.
Finally, typical of nature, balance is achieved. The spreading of a glacier stops or is limited by reaching an area of higher temperature like the lower slopes of a mountain, or reaching a large body of water, such as a large lake, sea or ocean. Here the borders of the glacier are melting. The ice is made of water and as such, the glacier is moving but very slowly, under its own pressure.
At the poles, North Pole and Antarctica, sea water freezes and forms floating glaciers that also feed from falling snow. This ice sheet expands and reduces according to the seasons. Of central importance to this natural world, the game is balance, as it is in many aspects of nature.
Recently we have been witnessing a phenomenon that disturbs the natural balance: melting glaciers. Everybody has heard of global warming. While concentrating on the effect on the glacial world, we can say that one of the key ingredients is changing. Cold temperatures are not cold enough anymore, which results in melting ice.
The ongoing meltdown starts a chain reaction because the balance is lost. One of the advantages of glaciers for the Earth is that this white and bright surface of ice reflects around 10% of the energy that it gets from the Sun right back to the sender. This gets rid of a good amount of heat that otherwise would absorb into the Earth. Smaller ice surfaces means more heat on Earth, which in turn causes more glacial melting. The melting glaciers become water again, which then gets to the oceans and raises the water level all over the Earth.
Rising water levels put at risk large human populations that live along the coasts. The rising of water by one to two meters is expected by the end of the century. Flat countries like Bangladesh, Holland and small islands in the oceans will be first to be severely affected in the beginning of the melting process. Also to be considered is the mass of ice that is packed and stored in the Antarctic alone. If it all melts, the oceans’ water surface will likely rise by almost 60 meters – a major global disaster. Even now, scientists expect that the water rising will leave more than a billion refugees by the end of century.
Much more of course will happen in the natural world as a result of global warming that will effect everything and every form of life on Earth. We have to hope that common sense, along with deep thinking, will reduce the ongoing problem. We must keep our energy-reflecting shields as big and safe as possible; otherwise the human race may need to find another place to live in the Milky Way Galaxy.
Glaciers are majestic and beautiful. Once you see them, you will fall in love and be awed by their presence. When they are healthy, the world is smiling, and we certainly want and need this smile to continue.
Clockwise from upper left: Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentinian Patagonia. Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska. Nigardsbreen Glacier in Norway. Columbia Glacier near Valdez, Alaska. Exit Glacier near Seward, Alaska. A sign marks its location 14 years ago. Glaciers along Prince William Sound, Alaska. Broken blue ice floating away from the Columbia Glacier.