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No glaciers, no water?

No glaciers, no water? thumbnail

The world’s largest rivers begin in glaciated mountain regions. However, climate change may cause many glaciers to disappear. Will water become scarce?

There are around 200,000 glaciers worldwide. They play a central role in the water cycle, particularly in the middle and low latitudes, by offsetting runoff fluctuations. Rivers are lifelines on which billions of people depend worldwide, either directly or indirectly.

Will water become scarce in the near or distant future if glaciers become increasingly smaller or disappear completely? Will the Alps, the Himalayas, the Rocky Mountains and the Andes continue to act as water towers? We set out to answer this question in a study of all the earth’s and the drainage basins of their large rivers.

Decisive “peak water”

We used a glacier model that describes the development of glaciers worldwide and their future runoff until the end of the 21st century. First, the good news: ice-covered mountains will continue to provide enough water throughout the year in future. In an initial phase, will actually cause the runoff to increase, as water stored as ice is released. However, if the glacier becomes too small, it will reach a tipping point, which we call “peak water”.

The key point: in order to properly plan the distribution of water in future, for example for agricultural irrigation or hydropower, we have to know whether we are before or after “peak water”. In the Alps, the tipping point is now. In most of the drainage basins in South America, the glaciers are already providing less water. However, in Asia and North America, the total runoff from glaciers will continue to increase until around the middle of the century, and will only then begin its downward trend.

No glaciers, no water?
The Abramov glacier in Kyrgyzstan. Credit: Matthias Huss/ETH Zurich

Will people in the lowlands notice the difference?

Glaciers stabilise river levels in summer via high volumes of melted ice. Our calculations show that by 2100, significantly more than half of the glacial ice outside the polar regions may disappear, and the consequences could be dramatic: where a roaring glacial stream once flowed during the warm months, only a dry, stony desert will remain. By the end of the century, almost all glaciers worldwide will provide significantly less water in the summer months than they do today – some volumes will be reduced by more than two thirds.

But will these changes be noticeable in the densely populated downstream areas of large rivers? Particularly in central Asia, for example in the inflows to the Aral Sea or the Indus, these dry summers will mean accepting a heavy reduction in the availability of water – despite the fact that glaciers currently only cover relatively small proportions of the drainage basin.

The same is true of some rivers in the Andes, and – to a lesser extent – in the Alps. The situation could become precarious in future due to the increasing frequency of heatwaves. However, ice melt is only important near to the glaciers. For around two thirds of the world’s large rivers, the situation is not alarming. The glaciers are too small for their disappearance to significantly affect continental .

Solving problems regionally

Our study highlights the “hot spots” where retreating glaciers will cause water shortages in . Many problems could be solved by more efficient use and better distribution of water on the level of the affected communities. In developing countries, this requires significant investment and a transfer of expertise.

Climate change is a global problem with local consequences. If the international community succeeds in restricting the temperature rise to an acceptable level via contributions from each individual member, the effects may be mitigated. Many would still shrink significantly even with major climate protection efforts, but the consequences for resources would be more moderate.

16 Comments on "No glaciers, no water?"

  1. Anonymouse1 on Fri, 9th Feb 2018 3:17 pm 

    Once all the glaciers melt, we can strip-mine whatever is underneath the (former) ice-fields. It will create jobs, and be good for the economy. A win-win. And it doesn’t stop there. With all the money we make strip-mining the now-barren, and ice-free mountains, everyone will be able to afford to buy cloggen-tards environmentally friendly, self-driving, flying electric cars. We’ll have so much mineral wealth to spare, we could easily afford to throw in a free Iphone with every EV purchased.

  2. Go Speed Racer on Fri, 9th Feb 2018 3:47 pm 

    Ya once the glacier is out of the way,
    we can drill for oil there.

    Anybody knows, ya can’t setup an
    oil drilling rig on a moving glacier.

    It’s great news all the glaciers going away.

    Also we can have tire fires, with sofa
    cushions on top, in that empty gravel pit
    where the glacier used to be.

    Lots of fun !!!

  3. onlooker on Fri, 9th Feb 2018 6:27 pm 

    In the meantime
    Coca-Cola And Nestlé To Privatize The Largest Reserve Of Water In South America

  4. Sissyfuss on Fri, 9th Feb 2018 6:51 pm 

    Air is the next commodity to be privatized,OL.
    Any resource is fair game in the corporatocracy.

  5. onlooker on Fri, 9th Feb 2018 6:56 pm 

    Yep it’s their Earth, Sissy. We are just living on it. Sheesh

  6. Davy on Fri, 9th Feb 2018 7:28 pm 

    “What’s the Real U.S. Weather Story for Fall and Winter of 2017-2018? Abnormally Warm, Abnormally Dry.”

    “Meanwhile, the high amplitude jet stream waves featuring cold air driven out of the Arctic by larger warm air invasions have been increasingly linked by scientific studies to human-caused climate change. These intense local cold snaps are now more often identified as a by-product of Arctic warming. Great floods of warm air invade northward, driving remnant cold air into the middle latitudes. This bullying of cold by hot pushing mid-latitude temperatures into off-kilter extremes overlays a larger warming trend and is related to both sea ice loss and polar warming. But this particular climate change link — the fact that warm air in the Arctic is basically bullying the cold air out and is generating local, if intense, cold snaps — is presently under-reported in major broadcast weather media. Nor is the fact that daily record highs for the U.S. continue to greatly outpace daily record lows in the longer term trend being consistently highlighted.”

  7. Anonymouse1 on Fri, 9th Feb 2018 7:45 pm 

    I dont think mountains are the best spots to drill for oil GSR. But they are good places to drill for coal ….oil. We can take the coal oil we dig out from under the land all those stupid glaciers were wasting, and use it to power our eco-friendly driverless EVs. The wins just keep piling on. Why drill for OIL, when you can drill for coal instead? And of course, any coal tar…waste byproducts could definitely be diverted to your S2E plants. (Sofas-to-Energy).

    Coal, good for your stock portfolio, good your lungs, good for amerika.*

    *[Disclaimer] Coal may, or may not actually be good for any of those things.

  8. jawagord on Sat, 10th Feb 2018 12:14 am 

    The importance of Glacier melt water to River flow is greatly hyped, it’s a small part compared to rain and snow melt.

    “At the glaciers, the rivers are gushing, they are a huge source of water,” Marshall says, “But by the time you get downstream to Calgary or Edmonton, there is not that much glacier water in the rivers. In the Bow, the average for the year is only 2 or 3 per cent.” The other 97 per cent of the water in the Bow comes from rain and snow, much of it routed through the groundwater system.

  9. Anonymouse1 on Sat, 10th Feb 2018 4:53 am 

    Exactly jawatard, this thread is very pro-glacier re-development. Once all those stupid glaciers are gone, just think of all the goodies we can strip-mine, drill for, or use the land for new shopping malls. Now, like you say, the notion we actually need glaciers for anything is wildly overstated. Just more pro-frozen water propaganda from the glacialists.

    Those dope-smoking pro-glacier hippies don’t know what they are talking about, as usual. Thankfully, we have your random, unattributed quote from…some dude named marshall to back that up.


  10. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 10th Feb 2018 5:09 am 

    Hi Anonymouse,
    Thanks ya made my day! LOL.

    “Sofas to Energy”. Yep… S2E stations !

    Thanks for the terminologies.

  11. Cloggie on Sat, 10th Feb 2018 5:22 am 

    “At the glaciers, the rivers are gushing, they are a huge source of water,” Marshall says, “But by the time you get downstream to Calgary or Edmonton, there is not that much glacier water in the rivers. In the Bow, the average for the year is only 2 or 3 per cent.” The other 97 per cent of the water in the Bow comes from rain and snow, much of it routed through the groundwater system.

    Although I see myself in the pro-glacier camp, they are overrated though as a source of water. There is no such thing as rain versus glacier-sourced rivers. In the end they are all rain/snow rivers, a sewage system for rain water.

    Glaciers are for tourists only and rightly so!
    (Aletsch gletscher, Switzerland)

  12. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 10th Feb 2018 5:32 am 

    Opening ceremony of an S2E
    Sofa To Energy facility.

  13. Anonymouse1 on Sat, 10th Feb 2018 12:46 pm 

    I see there was *one* thumbs up vote on that video.

    That was you, right? Come on, 1776 views and only 1 upvote. Gotta been from GSR.

  14. Dredd on Sat, 10th Feb 2018 4:35 pm 

    No glaciers no water … no water no glaciers … sounds like a predicament … an expert predicament (Hot, Warm, & Cold Thermal Facts: Tidewater-Glaciers – 2).

  15. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 11th Feb 2018 6:19 am 

    … it was me …

  16. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 11th Feb 2018 6:21 am 

    People have emoticons for almost everything.

    how about this one

    h- <#%!#%!$!@$

    It's a burning la-z-boy recliner emoticon.
    The "h-" is the recliner, and the rest is
    the smoke…

    think people will know, the first time they see it?

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