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- The ice is rapidly melting, and even permafrost is no longer “eternal.”
- The one to blame for this, of course, is humans. The more the ice melts, the faster it melts (such is the vicious circle).
- Less animals, plants, and even nations, more anomalies and infections – the consequences of melting ice. And that’s not all
- Likely, we will say goodbye to whole cities and countries (but it’s not certain yet)
- We will have to get used to frequent weather anomalies
- Some plants and animals will disappear — the planet as we know it will no longer exist
- Infections will begin to spread more actively — along with insects
- The global food crisis will intensify. And it will be accompanied by a water crisis
- Wars of the future, it seems, will also be fought over water
- Related posts:
Last summer (but now it seems like in a past life), when an exhausting heat was prevailing in St. Petersburg, I read the novel “The Blue” by the Norwegian writer Maya Lunde – this is the second book in her “climate quartet.” If in the first book Lunde tried to imagine a world without bees, then in the second novel she painted a picture of the near future where water has become the main source of conflicts. Europe is affected by drought, sea levels are rising, hundreds of thousands of climate refugees are leaving their homes. And all because the ice is disappearing on the planet.
Lunde’s book could be called a fantasy. But if you look closely at what is happening to the world’s ice, it is more like a warning. In the last 20 years, surface freshwater reserves, including snow and ice, have decreased at a rate of 1 centimeter per year. Today, over 2 billion people live in countries suffering from a lack of freshwater. Another 3.6 billion people on the planet do not have access to freshwater for at least one month a year – and by 2050, their number will increase to 5 billion.
In the text that you are about to read, I will tell you about the possible cause of future wars on Earth – global ice. And also how its disappearance can affect everyone’s life. This is a rather alarming letter. Perhaps a special playlist compiled for you by Sergey Yakupov will help alleviate some of your worries.
Three years ago, in 2019, a solemn ceremony was held in Iceland to bid farewell to the glacier Okjokull. Once a giant, it “lost weight” by 40 meters in thickness, lost the ability to move, and turned into a modest piece of ice on the top of a volcano.
The Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrin Jakobsdottir, came to bid farewell to Okjokull in person. She gave a speech, after which the participants of the ceremony climbed up the volcanic slope and installed a memorial plaque in honor of the glacier with a message for future generations. It says: “Okjokull is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status, and in the next 200 years, the same fate awaits all the other glaciers on the island.”
Unfortunately, this fate awaits not only the glaciers of Iceland. In the same year, after the Icelanders, the Swiss held symbolic funeral for the Pizol alpine glacier, which lost up to 90% of its volume in just 13 years. And just recently, on July 3, part of a glacier collapsed in the Italian Dolomite Alps on Mount Marmolada. As a result, at least seven people died and several others are still missing.
The area of glaciers is decreasing globally. Sea ice is also becoming less. And yes, all of this is directly related to global warming.
To understand what exactly is happening with the world’s ice (and what threat it poses), we turned to five scientists. Glaciologists Stanislav Kutuzov and Diana Vladimirova talked about the fate of land ice, while oceanologist Irina Repina talked about sea ice in the Arctic. Climatologist Alexander Chernokulsky explained what accelerates the melting of ice and how humans are involved in this process. In turn, biologist Yegor Zadereev helped to envision the future of the planet.
The ice is rapidly melting, and even permafrost is no longer “eternal.”
Facts and figures (lots of numbers)
A little about what the world ice represents. It covers about 10% of the land surface as well as 7% of the oceans. Actually, there are two main types of ice on the planet – glaciers and ice on water bodies.
Glaciers can be mountainous and covering. It is clear from the name what the first ones are, while the second ones include the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland (which account for 99% of all glaciers on Earth). As for the ice on water bodies, these are the Arctic sea ice.
The largest ice reserves are located in Antarctica, with a total volume of 26.5 million cubic kilometers. Another large ice storage is Greenland, where 2.8 million cubic kilometers are concentrated. However, the volume of sea ice in the Arctic constantly changes. In December 2021, it amounted to 13,300 cubic kilometers.
And all this ice is melting. From 1994 to 2017, the Earth has already lost about 28 trillion tons of ice, and the rate of melting is increasing. As a result, the level of the World Ocean is rising – over the specified time it has risen by 35 millimeters.
Faster than anywhere else, the ice is disappearing in the Arctic. Since satellite measurements started in 1979, Arctic ice has been decreasing by 13% every ten years. By the end of the century, it risks disappearing completely – at least in the summer. This could happen even earlier, warns oceanologist Irina Repina in a conversation. She reminds us that the current summer ice area in the Arctic was only predicted by climatologists for 2050, and only in the most pessimistic scenarios. And although the Arctic is still covered in ice in the winter, its cover is becoming seasonal.
As for Russia, its territory is warming up approximately 2.5 times faster than the global average. The most noticeable and alarming changes are happening in the permafrost zone, which covers two-thirds of the country’s territory. Over the past 30 years, the temperature of Russian permafrost has risen by 1.5-2 degrees.
By the end of this century, the permafrost can thaw up to an average of 3-4 meters. By the middle of the next century, it is likely to retreat 200-500 kilometers to the north. Because of this, scientists increasingly do not call the permafrost “eternal” – for them, it is now more “multi-year.”
It is in the areas of permafrost that 90% of gas, 30% of oil, and 90% of diamonds are extracted in Russia. The problem is that the higher the temperature, the weaker the strength of the frozen ground. This puts all the infrastructure located here, including enterprises and residential buildings, at risk.
The one to blame for this, of course, is humans. The more the ice melts, the faster it melts (such is the vicious circle).
Here’s how it happens.
Scientists have no doubts that humanity is to blame for the intensive melting of ice. People burn fossil fuels (mostly for energy production), and greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide and methane, are released into the atmosphere.
“Over several decades, we have extracted and burned what has accumulated on our planet for millions of years. Unprecedented growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in its isotopic composition indicates that greenhouse gases are entering the atmosphere from the burning of fuel, and the increase in its volume leads to warming,” explains climatologist Alexander Chernokulsky the process.
This is confirmed by the report data of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2021. However, there are other factors that enhance climate change, and therefore accelerate the process of ice melting.
Moreover, often these are factors related to the melting of ice. That is, it turns out to be a vicious circle: the ice melts and this process itself causes even more active melting.
The amount of steam is increasing more and more
The higher the air temperature, the more actively water evaporates – and the more water vapor there is in the atmosphere. Like methane and carbon dioxide, water vapor retains heat. Because of this, the air temperature increases again, the content of water vapor in the atmosphere increases again, and it retains more heat (that’s why water vapor is called a climate amplifier). And so on, and so forth.
Ice reflects less and less warmth
Ice and snow surfaces reflect up to 90% of solar heat, so the ocean and the lower layer of the atmosphere are not heated up significantly. However, as the ice area decreases, its reflective capacity decreases. As a result, the temperature increases, which further accelerates melting.
The temperature rises faster exactly where there is a lot of ice
Closer to the poles – that is, precisely where the planet’s main reserves of ice are concentrated – temperatures are rising faster than in lower latitudes. So the rate of melting ice in these regions is increasing. Scientists call this phenomenon polar amplification.
Precipitation is now different
To prevent a glacier from losing mass and to accumulate it, it needs a lot of snow and low temperatures in the summer – so that fallen snow does not melt. We currently live in conditions where summers are warm and precipitation is decreasing, causing many glaciers to simply not have enough time to stock up on snow.
When permafrost thaws, it also releases carbon
Permafrost stores from 1460 to 1600 gigatons of organic carbon. This is almost twice as much as is currently present in the atmosphere. And then you know: the more carbon in the atmosphere, the stronger the greenhouse effect and the warmer the planet – which means that the ice melts more intensively. Another vicious circle.
Less animals, plants, and even nations, more anomalies and infections – the consequences of melting ice. And that’s not all
Several (very alarming) future forecasts
It is still possible to pretend that intensive melting of ice on the planet is not a priority issue for humanity, especially in a situation where climate change is not recognized as a serious global threat by everyone (we have already responded to the arguments of skeptics here, by the way).
However, ignoring the disappearance of ice for too long is not an option. After all, we are already witnessing the consequences of this process – and very soon they will affect the entire Earth, although they will differ from region to region.
Likely, we will say goodbye to whole cities and countries (but it’s not certain yet)
- By the end of the 21st century, the sea level of the World ocean may rise by one meter.
- The Maldives will become uninhabitable as early as 2050.
- Netherlands is threatened with up to a quarter loss of territory.
For almost the entire last century, the level of the World Ocean has been rising relatively slowly, at 1.4 millimeters per year. But everything changed in the nineties. During the period from 1993 to 2018, the annual increase in sea level was 3.1 millimeters, and as a result, the level of the World Ocean rose by 77 millimeters.
By the end of the 21st century, sea levels could rise by up to 40 centimeters – even if we reduce carbon dioxide emissions and maintain global warming within 1.5-2 degrees Celsius (although some scientists no longer believe that this goal is achievable). If we do nothing and the planet’s temperature rises by 3-5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, the level of the World Ocean could increase by almost a meter.
Obviously, this will hit the low-lying coastal areas. Today, over 600 million people live in these areas (which is about 10% of the world’s population). By 2050, the number of such people will exceed a billion. The most vulnerable are small island states with a total population of 65 million people.
One of such countries – tiny Pacific Tuvalu – could become the world’s first country whose residents will be forced to relocate due to rising sea levels. In 2021, Tuvalu’s foreign minister even spoke at a UN climate conference standing knee-deep in water – trying to draw attention to the problem.
The salty soil has made the land on these islands unsuitable for agriculture. Drinking water supplies are at risk, and droughts are now occurring more frequently. Plans for adapting Tuvalu include artificially raising the land level several meters and building floating islands. But this requires huge amounts of money, which the small island state simply does not have. Evacuation of Tuvalu residents is seen as a last resort – although, for example, the neighboring island state of Fiji has already offered land for relocation.
The same problem threatens the Maldives – the lowest-lying state in the world. By 2050, the Maldives could become almost entirely unsuitable for living. However, there, this is also associated with ocean acidification – another process caused by global warming.
Water will reach Europe as well. For example, by the end of the century, the Netherlands could lose up to a quarter of its territory. Scientists also predict a possible 80-centimeter rise in water levels in St. Petersburg and Arkhangelsk, also by the end of the century (which, however, is not critical for the safety of these cities). And Anders Levermann, a professor of climate dynamics at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, warns that if the temperature rises by four degrees by the end of the century, humanity may “have to say goodbye to coastal cities like New York, New Orleans, Rotterdam and Hamburg.”
However, the surveyed Kit experts consider such predictions to be insufficiently substantiated at the moment. For example, climatologist Alexander Chernokulsky did not attempt to predict the rise in sea level and the specific consequences of this process for a particular city. According to him, there are still too many unknowns to make unequivocal conclusions.
We will have to get used to frequent weather anomalies
- Heavy rainfalls, floods and droughts are already more intense than before.
- In Russia, there will most likely be more dangerous weather phenomena.
- The reduction of ice cover in the Arctic intensifies storms.
Due to climate change, dangerous weather phenomena such as floods, heavy rain, hail, drought are becoming more intense. They are also occurring more frequently and in regions where they are not typical.
The melting of sea ice also affects the weather – for example, in the Arctic region, where about four million people permanently reside (these are the residents of Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States, as well as the indigenous peoples of the Arctic). The wave height increases here, and storms occur more often. The Arctic itself is a very stormy region, but now the acceleration of waves is hindered by ice. When the ice cover melts, even stronger storms will occur there, which will increase the risks during transportation of goods and extraction of minerals (oil and gas). In addition, polar mesocyclones (intense atmospheric polar spirals) are increasingly observed in the Arctic, which is difficult to predict, explains oceanologist Irina Repina.
And here’s another thing. In 2021, an article was published in Science, the authors of which established a direct link between the reduction of sea ice in the Arctic and the abnormally cold weather in the Northern Hemisphere during the winter of 2020-2021. According to the researchers, it was the changes in the Arctic that caused the extreme cold in Canada, the United States, and some northern regions of Mexico. In other words, global warming can also lead to extreme cold in winter. There are also scientific studies that show a connection between the disappearance of ice in the Arctic region and the recent cooling in Siberia and Europe. However, there were also doubts about the accuracy of this theory in the pages of the same journal Science.
Some plants and animals will disappear — the planet as we know it will no longer exist
- Melting ice changes entire ecosystems.
- Almost a million species of plants and animals are under threat.
- The polar bear and the white seagull may disappear forever.
In the nearest decades, almost one million out of eight million species of plants and animals on the planet will be under the threat of complete extinction. Additionally, if the average temperature on the planet rises by just 1.5 degrees from pre-industrial levels (it should be noted that hopes for this are decreasing), almost 10% of insects, 8% of plants, and 4% of vertebrates will lose more than half of their habitats. If the warming reaches two degrees, these numbers will double: 20% of insects, 16% of plants, and 8% of vertebrates.
Ecosystems are changing, including due to melting ice. In the Arctic, the reduction in the area of sea ice and the increase in temperature can, on the one hand, lead to the appearance of new species of animals and plants, as well as new ecosystems in which they live. On the other hand, they disrupt stable connections in the existing ecosystem and lead to failures in the food chain. As a result, some animal species are at risk of disappearing altogether – such as the polar bear or the ivory gull.
Mountain glaciers are melting, and the water from them feeds rivers and lakes. All of this also leads to the transformation of ecosystems and the disappearance of species. Ecosystems in several regions are particularly sensitive to such changes, including the entire Aral Sea basin, as well as the large lakes of Balkhash and Issyk-Kul in Central Asia. By the end of the 21st century, their feeding by mountain glaciers will be reduced by a third.
The two main river systems of Central Asia – the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers (which flow into the Aral Sea), as well as the Ili River (which flows into Lake Balkhash) – play a crucial role for the region. Due to the reduction in glaciated areas, the rivers’ water supply gradually decreases, and the lakes dry up. This will also lead to the extinction of plant and animal species that inhabit them (as well as hitting people’s economy, tourism, and the health of local residents). The same applies to mountainous areas in South America, Tuva, and Mongolia.
Infections will begin to spread more actively — along with insects
- Warming leads to the spread of infections.
- The carriers of infection are moving north.
- Pests insects migrate to the same place.
Due to the warming, insects that carry dangerous infections and destroy plants are expanding their habitat. This leads to the spread of infections in new areas.
So, ticks are moving north. There are already more tick-borne encephalitis cases in the northeast of European Russia, and their activity period has increased. In addition, there have been cases of Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever in Dagestan and Kalmykia, which previously did not exist there, as these ticks were brought with them from Stavropol Krai and Rostov Oblast.
However, infections on new territories are not only spread by insects. In Kazakhstan, the habitat of the great gerbil has expanded – the main carrier of the plague in Central Asia – so cases of plague among humans have increased. Several years ago, such cases were reported in Russia – in the Gorno-Altai region. And in 2016, an outbreak of Siberian ulcers occurred on the Yamal Peninsula – it is associated with permafrost melting.
Pests also pose a threat to forests and agriculture. After all, some insects – for example, the bark beetle or silk worm – come into ecosystems that are not prepared to meet them. The forest cannot protect itself and dies: the trees dry up and burn.
The global food crisis will intensify. And it will be accompanied by a water crisis
- Rising salt water levels will seriously impact agriculture.
- There will be significantly less corn, rice, sugarcane, soybeans, and coffee.
- The disappearance of glaciers will lead to a shortage of water on Earth.
Glaciers are reserves of fresh water, so their disappearance will trigger a water shortage. “In mountainous areas, glaciers determine the hydrological regime and act as water reservoirs. In the dry season, meltwater from glaciers compensates for the lack of water in rivers,” said glaciologist Stanislav Kutuzov.
If there are no glaciers, there will be nothing to replenish the deficit. And this problem is already acute in the La Paz region of Bolivia. Its water supply depends on glacier runoff, but their area is shrinking every year while the population of the region continues to grow.
At the same time, the rise of the global sea level poses a threat to agriculture in the coastal zone. When saltwater enters river deltas, it hinders farmers from growing familiar crops and engaging in animal husbandry. A vivid example is the Camargue ecosystem in southern France. Local farmers complain that the quality of pastures deteriorates due to the rising sea level. In the near future, farmers will have to leave these places.
Yield is also at risk. In 2021, the Stockholm Environmental Institute published a study predicting the future of three major crops (corn, wheat, and rice), as well as sugar cane, soybeans, and coffee. According to scientists’ forecasts, by the end of the century, corn production will decrease by 27%, rice by 8.1%, sugar cane by 58.5%, and soybeans by 7.2%. And what about coffee? The production of arabica, which accounts for 70% of the world market, will decrease by 45.2%.
Wars of the future, it seems, will also be fought over water
Because climate is political.
It is easy to assume that people will fight with each other for access to fresh water in the future. This is already happening.
For several decades now, this topic has been researched both in Russia and abroad. One of the world’s leading experts on freshwater resources, American Peter Gleick, predicted in 1993 an increase in conflicts between countries over freshwater – against the backdrop of a growing global population and the consequences of global warming.
Employees of the Pacific Institute, established by Gleikom, have been studying armed conflicts related to water since 1987. During this time, they have counted at least 581 cases in world history when access to water resources became one of the reasons for armed conflict (within one country or between states). Most of the conflicts listed by scientists occurred in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, but not only there.
“The next war in our region will be because of the Nile’s waters, not because of politics,” said the then Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt Butros Butros-Ghali in 1988. This is how he commented on the tense situation in the region, which has not been resolved to this day. It is about the decades-long dispute between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over the largest dam and hydroelectric power station “Renaissance” on the Blue Nile river in Africa. Ethiopia has been building it since 2011, and now the construction is almost completed and has already started filling with water. However, Egypt and Sudan insist that further dam filling must be coordinated with them, otherwise they will face drought.
Another study on the impact of climate and access to water on politics was published in 2019 by researchers from the Austrian International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. The study authors concluded that climate change is at least one of the reasons for the popular uprisings of the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and other Middle Eastern countries in 2010-2012. They also examined the situation in Syria, where the revolution turned into a full-scale civil war.
According to the authors of the study, the indirect cause of the civil war was the increase in average temperatures in the region. Prolonged drought, soil depletion, and a shortage of fresh water forced many rural Syrians to move to cities after several years of failing to produce a normal crop. By the end of the 2000s, 60% of peasant households in Syria were declining and 80% of livestock were slaughtered. Researchers note that the urban population of Syria grew by almost four million people from 2002 to 2010, from 8.9 to 13.8 million.
Cities were found to be overcrowded, people could not find work and housing, and prices rose due to drought and lack of goods. All of these events led to dissatisfaction, protests, political confrontation, and then civil war, researchers conclude. “And although there are not many statistical data on the [direct] link between climate change and civil war in Syria, the uprising in Syria is an example of how climate change and drought play a role in catalyzing conflict,” they summarize.
Floods in cities, weather cataclysms and mass extinction of animals – these listed consequences really resemble one of Maya Lund’s fiction plots. However, despite all these grim predictions, scientists still urge to avoid alarmism.
Any scenario of climate change described in climate models is an equation with multiple variables. Yes, climate modeling is based on the latest scientific data, but these models cannot be called perfect. Whether they will come true or not depends on many factors. Including what path humanity will choose in the near future.
Of course, hope is diminishing. The planet, gripped by geopolitical, energy, and food crises, is unlikely to prioritize the issue of melting glaciers. However, one thing can be said for certain. It is completely senseless to wage wars, citing the past, when humanity faces global, truly serious challenges of the future.
And this future is already happening.