Melting Glaciers Reach Tipping Point

2019-07-15T15:04:20+00:00 July 15, 2019|
(Credit: Pablo Clemente-Colon / National Ice Center)

(Credit: Pablo Clemente-Colon / National Ice Center)

From: Ocean News Weekly/ By: Ocean Leadership Staff 

What It Was

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing titled, “Earth’s Thermometers: Glacial and Ice Sheet Melt in a Changing Climate.”

Why It Matters

Glaciers and ice sheets play vital roles in regulating Earth’s climate and weather, in addition to providing fresh water for drinking and agricultural use and supporting fisheries and ecosystem health. Increasing air and ocean temperatures are melting glaciers, shifting water that was contained in them from land to the ocean. Glacial melt has several negative global implications, including sea level rise, which can result in infrastructure damage due to flooding and shoreline erosion. Melting ice and warming temperatures in the polar regions also make once inaccessible areas viable for new maritime transportation and trade routes.

Key Points

The impacts of ice loss, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, will result in changes in sea level felt around the world, experts warned. There was general agreement from the committee and ranking member about the need for more research on the recession of glaciers and ice sheets, with some questions from Representative Mo Brooks (AL-5) over the role humans have played in changing the climate. Committee members asked witnesses about the change in sea level affecting coastal communities. Dr. Robin Bell (Lamont Research Professor, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University) spoke about how melting glaciers have already begun to change coastlines by increasing sea levels. This rise in water volume not only makes effects of major storms more devastating but also increases nuisance flooding, where high tides result in inundated roads.

Looking ahead, Dr. Bell shared that scientists are trying to provide answers to how fast and to how much sea levels will rise in different communities from ice sheet melt. Ice sheet modeling is still in early stages of development, contrary to its weather and hurricane counterparts. Scientists face the challenge of having to learn how ice sheets work from geologic records, as they have never seen one disappear in modern times. Dr. Gabriel Wolkon (Research Scientist and Manager, Climate and Cryosphere Hazards Program, Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys, Alaska Department of Natural Resources) spoke about the need for more observational data to drive models. He stated that the lack of ground-based data means remote sensing and computer modeling is used to estimate glacier melt. Increasing the capacity for ground-based observational data and the quality of remote sensing products would refine the current range of ice loss projections and produce models that more accurately represent the variables and processes involved in glacier melt and runoff.

Solving how Antarctica is going to respond to climate change is an increasingly complex task. Dr. Twila Moon (Research Scientist, National Snow and Ice Data Center’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences) reiterated that research is not keeping up with the rate at which the environment is changing. Witnesses emphasized the need for multidisciplinary and collaborative research efforts but stressed the biggest necessity is for funding to conduct research and to support students and early career scientists.


“We need to be listening to Earth’s glaciers and ice sheets and what they’re telling us about the changing climate. Glacial and ice sheet melt is responsible for two-thirds of the 8 inches of sea level rise we’ve seen in the last 200 years from anthropogenic warming, and that sea level rise is only expected to continue.”— Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX-30)

“I also want to consider the economic and geopolitical consequences of glacial and sea ice melt. Five countries, including America and Russia, border the Arctic. Territorial disputes in this region will take on greater importance as resource-rich land and new shipping routes are revealed. There are significant economic implications from the energy rights, mineral deposits, and tourism opportunities.”— Ranking Member Frank Lucas (OK-3)

“While there were these very dramatic temperature changes and sea level rises in the past, which were entirely natural, we weren’t there to deal with them. The problem here is with people. How do we respond to environmental change […] If this had happened a long time ago when the population of Earth was a few hundred million, it probably wouldn’t have mattered either because we could’ve just gotten out of the way. But as it is today, with the numbers of people that we have and the infrastructure, we are very sensitive to changes of this kind and we don’t handle change very well.”— Dr. William Tad Pfeffer (Fellow, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado Boulder)

Find Out More

Watch the full hearing

Related coverage from the Consortium for Ocean Leadership          

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