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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May-June 2009

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Glacier Retreat: Reviewing the Limits of Human Adaptation to Climate Change

The world’s mountains bear many glaciers, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 by current estimates. Nearly all are shrinking. As temperatures increase, the massive banks of ice on mountain summits melt much faster than they did in the past. The fresh snows that fall each year cannot make up for this loss, and the glaciers retreat upslope and grow smaller. A recent review of glaciers around the world shows that the average loss of length is about 10 meters per year, and this pace is accelerating in many regions.

Unlike many other consequences of climate change, glacier retreat is highly visible and widely recognized by people around the world. Glacier retreat first became the subject of major headlines and television news stories in 1991, when hikers high up in the Austrian Alps discovered the body of a man half-buried in ice. Though some people thought he was a mountain climber who had died recently, he proved to come from a much more remote time, the Bronze Age, and had lain covered by ice for thousands of years. In other cases, glacier retreat has received media attention because of the fame of the mountains themselves. The rapid loss of glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro was widely reported because the mountain is a well-known tourist attraction and the setting of Hemingway’s famous story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Similarly, Glacier National Park in Montana became the subject of news stories when some of the glaciers for which it was named shrank so much that they were no longer visible from major roads or accessible by short hikes. As the historian Mark Carey has noted, many people speak of glaciers as if they were an endangered species that deserves protection against extinction.

As a result, mountain glaciers powerfully demonstrate how climate change has already altered the world. Numerous surveys show that people believe the most serious impacts will take place far in the future and affect people in remote settings, such as the Arctic, or low-lying atolls in the Pacific Ocean. However, glaciers have been retreating for decades,  in many settings: developed as well as developing nations in North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Even Africa has peaks with shrinking glaciers, both Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and several peaks in the Rwenzoris in Uganda. Indeed, it could be said that glaciers are shrinking on every continent, if one counts New Zealand, with its Southern Alps, as part of greater Australia.

More than many other consequences of climate change, glacier retreat also is easily understood: temperatures warm, and ice melts. The negative consequences of glacier retreat for important issues—water resources, natural hazards, and landscapes—are also straightforward and clear, and significant agreement between expert and lay opinion on its existence, nature, and impacts makes glacier retreat an area of overlap between the views of the scientific community and the general public. Moreover, in recent years, public institutions have formed to address climate change, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, many national and regional bodies, and nongovernmental organizations concerned with sustainable development. Glacier retreat falls clearly within their stated missions. If society cannot address glacier retreat, it is very likely that other aspects of climate change will prove even more intractable. Yet the record on mitigating and adapting to glacier retreat is mixed at best.

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