Climate disasters – What happens when a glacier melts?

A glacier is a large mass of ice that forms over many years in areas where snow and ice accumulate faster than they melt. Glaciers are typically found in high-altitude and high-latitude areas, such as mountain ranges and polar regions.

Glaciers are formed when snow accumulates and compresses into ice, which then begins to flow downhill due to the force of gravity. As the ice moves, it can carve out valleys and create distinctive landforms, such as cirques, horns, and U-shaped valleys.

Glaciers can vary in size from small ice fields to massive ice sheets that cover entire continents, such as the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Glaciers play an important role in shaping the landscape and providing freshwater to rivers and lakes, as well as supporting a variety of unique plant and animal species that are adapted to living in these cold environments. However, as temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, glaciers are melting at an accelerating rate, which can have far-reaching consequences for the environment and human societies.

Some of the main consequences of glacier melting include:

  1. Rising sea levels: As glaciers melt, the water flows into rivers and eventually makes its way into the oceans. This can cause sea levels to rise, which can lead to flooding and other coastal hazards.
  2. Changes in water availability: Glaciers are an important source of freshwater for many communities. When glaciers melt, they can release large amounts of water into rivers and streams, which can cause flooding and landslides. However, as the glacier retreats, water sources may dry up, leading to water scarcity in some areas.
  3. Changes in ecosystems: Glaciers provide unique habitats for many species of plants and animals, and when they melt, it can drastically alter these ecosystems. For example, as glaciers retreat, it can create new lakes and wetlands, which can be home to different species than the surrounding areas.
  4. Increased risk of natural disasters: Glacier melting can lead to a higher risk of natural disasters, such as landslides, rockfalls, and flooding. This can have significant impacts on communities living in the surrounding areas, including damage to infrastructure and loss of life.

Pakistan, which saw massive flooding in 2022, is particularly vulnerable as it is home to more glaciers than anywhere else in the world except for the polar regions – and as glaciers melt, creating new lakes, outbursts of water are common.

While other factors including a heavy monsoon and rivers bursting their banks contributed to the devastating floods, which caused structures like bridges to collapse, Sardar Sarfaraz from Pakistan’s Meterological Department explained that there were 16 incidents of glacial lake breaches in the country’s northern Gilgit-Baltistan region in 2022, compared with just five or six seen in previous years.

“Such incidents occur after glaciers melt due to [a] rise in temperature,” Sarfaraz told Reuters, adding: “Climate change is the basic reason for such things.”

Overall, the melting of glaciers is a significant concern in the context of climate change.

As temperatures continue to rise, we can expect to see more and more glaciers melting, which will have far-reaching consequences for the environment and human societies around the world.