Global warming is causing glaciers worldwide to disappear at an alarming rate, says a recent study published May 12 in the journal Science.
The world's glacier volume is rapidly shrinking, as Arctic sea ice levels have plummeted to a record low for the winter season. The process also affects glaciers on land, which — unlike the ice sheets in the open water — pose a bigger threat to the planet if they should melt.
As opposed to the melting sea ice, which has less of an impact on seawater levels, melting on-land glaciers would drain into the sea, causing sea levels to rise all over the world.
Study author Twila Moon, from the University of Colorado in Boulder, believes what's happening to the world's glaciers should be "of international concern."
"The evidence is overwhelming: Earth is losing its ice. Much of this loss is irreversible and the result of human-caused climate change," Moon writes.
Why The Glaciers Are Important
While the loss of sea ice endangers the entire marine ecosystem — creating a ripple effect that starts with perturbed phytoplankton cycles and ends with the sea creatures that depend on it for survival — the disappearing on-land glaciers threaten coastline cities worldwide.
If all the polar ice and mountaintop glaciers melted, the rising sea levels would "displace millions of people within the lifetime of many of today's children," says Moon.
But the problem goes beyond losing coastal beaches, the researcher points out in her paper.
Glaciers are also vital water sources for many parts of the world, and in their absence water supplies would run dry and wildlife would be left without food and shelter.
One of the most visible trends the world is currently experiencing is glacier retreat. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Glacier National Park in Montana has lost more than 120 glaciers in the last century.
Moon's study documents this pattern manifesting all over the world, from the Antarctic Peninsula to Patagonia, Kilimanjaro, the Himalayas, Greenland, and the Arctic.
According to the study, the latest estimates reveal 52 percent of all small glaciers in Switzerland will disappear in the next 25 years, whereas western Canada will lose about 70 percent of its total glacier volume by 2100.
"Unless substantial climate response action is taken and the trend of global temperature rise is reversed, we will continue to see Miami streets swallowed by the sea and glacier freshwater reservoirs melt into mud. And we can expect this pattern to continue for decades, centuries, and indeed, millennia," concludes Moon in her paper.
What Would Earth Look Like With No Ice?
Another study, published just last month by Southampton University, uncovered that Earth could reach a warming state unseen in the last 420 million years if humanity maintains the present rate of burning fossil fuels over the next one or two centuries.
There are an estimated 5 million cubic miles of ice on our planet, and some scientists believe it would take at least 5,000 years to melt it all. However, if we keep emitting carbon into the atmosphere and burning fossil fuels, all the ice at the mountaintops and poles will melt because of global warming.
The result: A planet without ice. Earth would have an average temperature of about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the current average temperature of 58 degrees Fahrenheit, and an increase of 216 feet in seawater levels.
What would happen if the coastlines were flooded by water and new shorelines were created for all the seven continents and the inland seas?
National Geographic teamed up with scientists and universities around the world to give an accurate depiction of what Earth would look like if the sea level rose by 216 feet, the equivalent of melting all the water currently locked away in ice.
The researchers created adaptations of the world's map, reflecting how continents would look like in the future if this should happen. By their estimations, the landscape would suffer important changes, which could dramatically impact global economy.
The 7 Continents In An Ice-Free World
According to the researchers' predictions, North America would become a completely different world, forcing future generations to adapt to a drastically reshaped landscape.
"The entire Atlantic seaboard would vanish, along with Florida and the Gulf Coast. In California, San Francisco's hills would become a cluster of islands and the Central Valley a giant bay. The Gulf of California would stretch north past the latitude of San Diego — not that there'd be a San Diego," says the National Geographic assessment.
The projections for the rest of the continents are equally bleak. In South America, the Paraguay River Basin and the Amazon Basin would evolve into Atlantic inlets, "wiping out Buenos Aires, coastal Uruguay, and most of Paraguay."
Europe stands to lose many iconic cities, such as London and Venice, which would be claimed by the sea. The same fate awaits the Netherlands and most of Denmark, while the expanding Mediterranean would increase the water levels of the Caspian and Black Seas.
In Asia, the rising seas would flood Chinese territories, as well as Bangladesh and a large portion of coastal India. The flooded Mekong Delta would turn the famous Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia into a stranded island, the predictions unveil.
The same report shows Australia as gaining new inland sea, but being robbed of much of its narrow coastal strip, where 80 percent of Australians have made a home.
Antarctica seems to be fortifying its massive ice sheets, which appear to be thickening under the effects of global warming. Yet, even these colossal glaciers are vulnerable to climate change, and are being eroded from beneath by the warming water.
Africa would probably be the least affected, estimate the researchers, noting that although the continent would be subjected to a lesser extent of land loss, it would still lose great areas of Egypt. Here, the cities of Alexandria and Cairo would be turned into a swamp by the Mediterranean Sea.
The map adaptations for all seven continents can be viewed on the National Geographic Magazine website.