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An Undeniable Link: Glacial Melt and Man-Made Climate Change

An Undeniable Link: Glacial Melt and Man-Made Climate Change

While many of our politicians continue to deny man-made climate change is a reality, new figures reveal that human-caused climate warming may be the single biggest driving force behind recent glacial melt.

There’s a reason why we have the phrase “a glacial pace.” Everything about glaciers is slow, so even though we know they are melting due to the warming climate, it’s hard to get a fix on just how rapid that melting process is, when it began in earnest and, crucially, whether man-made climate change can be shown to have exacerbated the melting, and to what extent.

Now researchers from Canadian and Austrian university and publishing this month in the journal Science Express have been able to conduct a systematic analysis of data on glacial melt that is collected as part of the Randolph Glacier Inventory (RGI) initiative. The researchers say that glaciers actually provide a very neat way of looking at climate change because their responses are so slow to manifest. As a result, the researchers could, and with some accuracy, estimate the state of the glaciers as far back as 1851, and then begin to calculate the speed of glacial melt from there, adjusting for known reasons why melting may have slowed or sped up other than natural causes or what we’d call man-made climate change.

The figures showed that man-made climate change could be tracked over several decades, exacerbating standard melting patterns. What’s more, over the past couple of decades there has been a sharp upturn in glacial melt that the researchers believe is consistent with our modern manufacturing boom. In fact, they believe they can say that man-made global warming, and mainly the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal for energy, may be responsible for as much 69 percent of the glacial melt between 1991 to 2010.

To put that in more solid terms, the researchers were able to create a rough estimate for just how much ice is melting every year. They think that around 295 billion tons of ice melts every year due to human-linked climate change compared to just 130 billion tons related to natural causes.

Still, due to the way in which these figures were calculated based on estimates, there is a sizable margin for error on this and we do have to take that into account. Taking just the 1991 to 2010 figure as an example, the human contribution to glacier melt may be as low as 45 percent, or it could even be as high as 93 percent, but the researchers believe that the evidence suggests the 69 percent figure is probably closer to the real value. What isn’t in dispute here is the contribution of man-made climate change which, even at the lower end of the spectrum, remains considerable and worrying.

The research did turn up some surprises, however. When the researchers dug down into area-specific glacier melt, they found that man-made climate change may not have an effect on every area. For instance, they could see clear signs of human-contribution to melting in areas like Alaska, western Canada and Greenland, among many others. Yet some areas like the Andes gave figures that meant the researchers couldn’t link glacial melt to human influence with high confidence.

The researchers stress that they need to make improvements to their various climate models and to their data analysis methods to improve their confidence in all these figures, but the research has been welcomed by other climate scientists who are quoted as saying this makes “perfect sense,” with non-affiliated researcher Richard B. Alley of Pennsylvania State University telling Mashable:

“Warming melts glaciers, whether the warming is caused by natural or human causes. And because glaciers are slow thermometers, even if humans were to quit warming the climate, the glaciers will lose more mass in the future as they ‘catch up’ with the warming that has already occurred.”

So what does this mean for our understanding of the glacial melt problem? Well most importantly it highlights the need to redouble our efforts to find alternative energy sources so as to cut our reliance on fossil fuels. We’re unlikely to be able to stop the glacial melt now, but this research makes clear that what we do today will be important for the situation our children and their children face in the years to come.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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220 comments

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1:25AM PST on Nov 19, 2014

Live long and prosper

5:57PM PDT on Sep 9, 2014

Brian f.,
Not true. Glaciers melted just as quickly during the medieval warm period, roman warm period, and previous warm periods as today. These period lasted a few hundred years, not thousands. I suggest you educate yourself in the science of glaciers, not the politics. You should check out scientific sites instead.

8:06AM PDT on Sep 9, 2014

Dan B Glaciers didn't start melting so quickly, until humans started the industrial revolution, and began using dirty fossil fuels in massive numbers, in the last 100 years. All the previous glacier melts took thousands of years. Never have the world's glaciers melted so quickly in such a short amount of time, as they have in the last 30 years. It is more than a coincidence that glacier melt has intensified in the last 30 years due to our use of dirty fossil fuels. I suggest you go to the NOAA, NASA, and IPCC websites and educate yourself with information from real scientist who are studying the effects of Global Warming, and the horrible effects it is causing.

7:28AM PDT on Sep 8, 2014

Interesting article, thank you!

12:36PM PDT on Sep 4, 2014

Of course glaciers will melt when temperatures rise and/or snowfall decreases. That part is simpke. Linking this to man's actions is much more tenuous.

11:58AM PDT on Sep 4, 2014

Glacial-melt is a natural phenomena, man-made climate change an "intervention", misplaced as usual, tending only to speed things up considerably and in the wrong direction. Perfect ...

9:06AM PDT on Sep 4, 2014

Manufactured studies to support the latest "climate disruption" theories that are falling by the wayside as scientists actually dig into the "assumptions" that are made. It is those ASSUMPTIONS that are used to manipulate the PREDICTIONS.
These guys try SO HARD to prove a fact that isn't true. If they would redirect those energies to something more positive, like how to DEAL with the change, rather than trying to AVOID the change, there might actually be some value to their work.
The SCIENCE of AGW is far from settled, despite these inadequate attempts to prove otherwise.

5:45AM PDT on Sep 2, 2014

For a few dollar donation, stop 1000 tons of CO2 emissions by saving acres of threatened rainforest:

https://www.rainforesttrust.org/acres-for-50cents/

12:27PM PDT on Sep 1, 2014

L' homme accélère le réchauffement climatique mais il est difficile de calculer la fonte des glaces et le temps que cela prendra exactement. Mais nous savons une chose : il est urgent de faire quelque chose, car cela va de plus en plus vite.

8:05AM PDT on Sep 1, 2014

The back and forth discussion of the NASA Global warming theories between the different scientist on their own chat room forum is entertaining, Some will not change their minds, but cannot scientifically explain why CO2 is a greenhouse gas.

Admitting to such a catastrophic mistake would be difficult for most scientist.

http://principia-scientific.org/supportnews/latest-news/163-new-discovery-nasa-study-proves-carbon-dioxide-cools-atmosphere.html

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