Alpine glaciers in context

I live in the European Alps. People here are concerned about the glaciers in this region (e.g. this article) and want them to stick around, for tourism, skiing, climbing, enjoyment and scenery, amongst other reasons. Unfortunately for those holding these wishes, the data on glacier change in the region, and projections of their response to foreseen Alpine temperature changes suggest that their survival outlook is gloomy (e.g. Zemp et al., 2006).

My colleagues Dr Kristin Richter and Dr Wolfgang Gurgiser put these Alpine glacier in context in an outreach exercise for school children in which the participants are given a lump of playdough and asked to distribute it across a world map according to how the glaciers and acetates of the earth are currently distributed. The last lot of students did a pretty good job as you can read in Kristins blog on the matter, and in the end the division of ice mass between the major ice sheets of Antarctic (left) and Greenland (middle) and the mountain glaciers (right) that are closer to home for most of us looks like this:

As Kristin says: “Though only small amounts of ice are stored in glaciers compared to the ice sheets, they still have been one of the main contributors to sea level rise during the last centuries. However, the glaciers in the European Alps are but a tiny fraction (less than 1%) of the small ball that represents the glaciers. Literally just a drop in the ocean.”

So, while we may miss our Alpine glaciers when they are gone, if we are concerned about how glacier melt will affect global sea level rise our eyes should be elsewhere.

About lindsey

Environmental scientist. I am glaciologist specialising in glacier-climate interactions to better understand the climate system. The point of this is to understand how glaciated envionments might change in the future - how the glaciers will respond and what the impact on associated water resources and hazard potential will be.
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