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Glaciers and Climate Change

2009 September 10

“Are glaciers melting at alarming rates?” “Is climate change really happening?” I have been asked these questions by people and students outside the environmental field. Changes in glaciers seem to be the gold standard for measuring climate change. However, living in the Caribbean, to me glaciers seem like a distant world.

image of rock with the words \"Ice Limit\" and the date \"1916\" carved into itA recent vacation to Alaska on a cruise ship provided me some insight on climate change and its consequences. While in Juneau I visited Mendenhall Glacier and could notice the retreating of this glacier upon my hike in the adjoining rain forest. An old building deep inside the forest revealed the former visitor’s center more than 10 miles from the glacier’s current location as well as a stone marking from 1916 of the ice limit.

Managed by the U.S. Forest Service and part of the Tongass National Forest (the nation’s largest forest), Mendenhall, which is 12 miles long, has been rapidly retreating since 1750. From 1951–1958, the glacier, which flows into suburban Juneau, has retreated 1,900 feet (580 m). The glacier has also receded 1.75 miles (2.82 km) since 1958, when Mendenhall Lake was created. In 2004 the glacier retreated 600 feet and in 2007 another 500 ft..

Glaciers form in areas with large amounts of rain and extremely low temperatures. When snow accumulates, it compacts underlying snow layers from previous years into solid ice. Glaciers cover 10% of our world’s total area. This is the same amount of land used worldwide for agriculture. Glacier and polar ice store more water than all the world’s lakes, rivers and the atmosphere combined. When they melt, sea level rises thus consequences for coastal communities and islands are serious. Rising sea levels inundate wetlands and other low-lying lands In Juneau, I could not help noticing that the Gastineau Channel turns into a wetland at some point during the day. There was a low tide early in the morning. Our forest interpreter told us it is becoming increasingly unavigable as there has been a marked increase in silt build up. Some research into this showed that it has been argued that this a consequence of melting and retreating of Mendenhall Glacier. If current trends continue, it is possible the channel may be entirely blocked and filled with dry land.

Yes indeed, climate change is happening and it is tangible. EPA is working on many programs geared to reduce the harmful effects on human health and the environment of green house gases. While most are voluntary, states and industries are actively engaged. I invite you to take a closer look at your daily activities and try to cut down on your carbon footprint.

About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. Yousaywhat? permalink
    September 10, 2009

    I think EPA is doing more than just voluntary efforts…please let us know what they are. Can you also tell me how a greenhouse gas causes a human health problem? I understand that emissions of ghgs cause changes to our climate that will have secondary health impacts. Did you mean that, or are you saying that if CO2 is too high, i will die?

  2. Johnny R. permalink
    September 10, 2009

    The EPA almost never answers questions, so here’s what I know.

    The worst greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, spewed up from the thousands of coal-fired power plants, and the smoke contains accumulating traces of a whole cocktail of chemical contaminants, the worst being mercury, which has infiltrated all the fish everywhere to various degrees of toxicity. And since the human population continues to grow and demand more electricity, more power plants are built, so the pollution gets worse.

  3. Johnny R. permalink
    September 10, 2009

    Then there are the thousands of jet planes in the air 24 hours a day. You can see the “jet trails” in the sky. Well, that’s pollution and it settles down into the water and soil everywhere. So what are the World’s leaders doing about it? Are they demanding that all that pollution be safely recycled? Nah! That would cost so much money the energy corporations couldn’t make a profit. So, we’re all just supposed to get used to it. Some people in China are wearing filter masks on their way to work. Of course the legal authorities don’t want to admit that millions of people are getting seriously ill from the growing tons of pollution, because lawsuits are already pending and would multiply exponentially.

  4. Johnny R. permalink
    September 10, 2009

    The basic conflict of interest is between cost accounting to reduce overhead, and healthy environments, and so far, cost accounting is winning.

  5. Johnny R. permalink
    September 10, 2009

    The glaciers, as everyone knows by now, are melting and in many places that eliminates the seasonal cycle of flow from mountain streams down into overpopulated areas that need more water, not less.

  6. Johnny R. permalink
    September 10, 2009

    Obviously, there’s not enough space or time to describe the entire human predicament, but whoever dares to think about it knows we humans are in extremely serious trouble, self-inflicted.

  7. Dave Gould permalink
    September 10, 2009

    I keep reading about receding glaciers and increased sea levels. I’m still waiting for my beach to be less beach. Ain’t seeing it. Someone’s logic is fuzzy. Nope, not a fan of global warming.

  8. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    September 11, 2009

    The Governor of California put together a Climate Change Action Team and they will issue their first report soon. In it they say that global warming is the result of green house gases coming from burning coal, oil, gasoline, diesel, and chemicals of different kinds since especially early in the last century. One consequence of climate change that will raise ocean levels in our region is the melting of the glaciers and artic ice cap. Low lying coastal areas of California will be impacted by this including our most important ports, biggest cities, and largest international airports. Coastal agricultural land could be underwater or have so much salt water intrusion, it is no longer fit for growinganything. We have introduced electric and hydrogen powered cars in California. All-electric powered trucks (the first 25) are working in the Port of Los Angeles and the manufacturing plant for them is in the City of Los Angeles. Conserving water and recycling storm water are good ways tosave electric power because it takes enormous amounts of power to operate the pumping stations that pump water from the Colorado River and Sacramento Delta down to southern California and then pump it on to peoples’ taps. Many things are being done and more will be done but it is too late to prevent at least some of the global warming impacts. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  9. watercooler permalink
    September 11, 2009

    these thing have been going on for years but nothing has actually happened yet… whats the date?

  10. Johnny R. permalink
    September 11, 2009

    The question is serious enough for you to do your own research and figure it out for yourself. The seas are rising an inch or two so far, enough to damage South Sea Islands. It might be worse if billions of gallons of water were not diverted for human use. Then, there are the millions of gallons seeping into abandoned coal mines and into the gaps left by drilling millions of barrels of oil. But the worst danger is the creeping pollution from growing mountains of landfill, and growing tons of garbage dumped into the oceans, more every year as the human population keeps on growing and growing and growing. How much can the Earth absorb before its biosphere collapses?

  11. BrentW permalink
    September 14, 2009

    There are too many articles that discuss receding glaciers that imply that the cause is too much CO2 in the atmosphere but there never is an explanation how the two are linked. If the problem is *only* the CO2 concentration in the entire global atmosphere, then logic dictates that *all* glaciers worldwide should be receding, but there are reports that some glaciers are actually gaining in mass. When article after article fails to explain this type of discrepancy, eventually the public gets the feeling that the “experts” cannot be trusted. Continuing to identify intellectually honest questioners as “skeptics” only adds to the distrust.

    The distrust will continue until experts get a lot better at communicating and giving specific answers to honest questions.

  12. Johnny R. permalink
    September 14, 2009

    You can figure it out yourself by asking how many people and how much pollution the Earth can support and absorb before it becomes too toxic for life to survive. It’s a matter of simple logic. The Earth is slowly shrinking, but humanity demands more and more resources for a growing population. That is a collision course toward ecocide. The obvious solution is to PEACEFULLY reduce the number of people through family planning programs Worldwide and safely recycle 100% of all waste and garbage. But most people refuse even to talk about it. I guess growth must be an instinct that few are able to think beyond.

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