by Alyssa Leavy | Zoom Out Mycology
How glaciers serve as our main defense against one of the largest releases of greenhouse gases in history.
Glaciers are an essential part of our planet’s landscape and climate. Although they seem remote, their presence is felt in every corner of the globe. Ten percent of land is covered with glacial ice, adding up to over 5.8 million square miles (NSIDC)(2). Glaciers contain so much water that if they were all to melt the sea level would rise 230 feet (NSIDC)(2). To put this in perspective, sea levels are expected to rise about 3 feet by 2070. Taking into account that many delta cities are concurrently losing their foundation sediment and our planet’s growing population, that 3 foot rise in sea level will put about 150 million people at risk of flooding in coastal areas (The World in 2050)(3). Another consideration is that as glaciers melt, we will also lose our fresh water reserve, since glaciers store about 75 percent of the world's fresh water (NSIDC)(2).
Glaciers also influence climate patterns and reflect the sun's rays, protecting against intensifying natural disasters and rising global temperatures. That’s enough for me to change my habits, but if you’re not convinced that we need to conserve these icy habitats, then read on!
Glaciers are integral to human survival in many ways and scientists are discovering another critical protection that dates back millions of years. As the Earth has cycled through warm and cold periods, organic matter has flourished, died and been encased in ice, unable to decompose. This makes glaciers one of the largest carbon sinks on the planet. If global warming trends continue, all of that organic carbon could be released as glaciers melt, spewing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. It’s a startling thought to say the least, but before we can understand the magnitude of this issue, we need a little history lesson on the holocene.
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