Explainer: Why you should care about glaciers

Kamalini Nagarajan, Reporter

When speaking about global warming, phrases like “the tipping point” and “runaway effect” appear quite often. The words themselves can seem overwhelming, like we have started on an unstoppable course for destruction. However, it is important to understand that the current warming of the earth is reversible, and the first step to doing that is to understand why the Earth is warming so rapidly. 

Historically, we as humans have not done much to cause any significant change in the environment. It is only recently that we have had any considerable impact. It’s this increase in pollution that has tipped Earth’s delicate balance. 

This graph shows the increase in CO2 (blue) and temperature (red) over 1000 years. A correlation as well as the accelerating increase can be seen in recent years. (Hanno/Wikipedia)

This imbalance sets forth a few positive feedback loops such as the ice-albedo relationship and water vapor. 

This diagram illustrates the positive feedback cycle with glaciers and the amount of light reflected back into the atmospheres. As glaciers melt, the amount of light reflected back into the atmosphere decreases, which further melts glaciers. (Tovarg/Wikipedia)

This diagram shows how atmospheric water vapor and the temperature affect each other. As the temperature increases, the amount of water vapor in the air increases, and that warms the Earth further.(Robert Mackay/atmosedu.com) 

While it is clearly difficult and unnecessary to try and understand every single relation, you should generally be aware of how important certain parts of our ecosystem are, such as glaciers. 

Glaciers play a vital role in keeping the temperature as it is. Not only are they part of the ice-albedo relationship, but they are also part of the ice-methane relationship.

A chunk of glacier from 4,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. The places where methane is stored can be seen. (WUSEL007/Wikipedia)

As glaciers freeze up, they trap methane, carbon, and other similar element in itself. Methane and carbon are both “greenhouse gasses” which means that they can warm up the environment. 

Greenhouses are used to maintain a certain temperature. Similar to this, greenhouse gasses trap the Earth’s heat, however this causes the earth to warm. (Владимир Иванов/Wikipedia)

Greenhouse gasses are gasses that trap the Earth’s temperature in the atmosphere so it does not escape. There is a level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere that Earth needs to maintain so that it does not overly gas up or warm up. A constant change in the amount of greenhouse gasses will accelerate whatever change in temperature is occurring. 

As we put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the earth gets warmer. When the earth gets warmer, glaciers melt. When glaciers melt, they release methane. This, in turn, blankets the atmosphere even more, which in turn increases the temperature again. The temperature can seem like it’s running away, getting warmer and warmer. 

There are multiple cycles like this in the environment , which is where the name “runaway effect” comes from. 

It’s important to avoid feeling discouraged or admitting that it is impossible to cool down the Earth. It’s not impossible, but it will require a lot of hard work. Not only figuring out ways to avoid using pollutants, the bulk of which has already been done[link] but also to efficiently implement these alternative ways through policy.For example, at a recent climate conference, the United Nations have set goals to not only reduce the amount of pollution per country, but also to put more efforts towards helping countries that have already been affected by climate change. It’s hard work, but it’ll be worth it.