“Mer de Glace”, or Sea of Ice, is France’s largest glacier and the second largest in the Alps. Located in the Mont Blanc massif, the glacier lies above the Chamonix valley and is surrounded by majestic peaks, such as Aiguille du Moine, Aiguille du Charmez and the famous Aiguille du Midi. In addition to admiring its natural beauty, there is one more reason one should visit Mer de Glace: to see climate change in action. “Mer de Glace is a true eye-opener,” says Kateryna Shornikova, of UN Environment’s Europe Office, who visited the glacier recently. “It helps understand what climate change means in real life.”
Like all glaciers, Mer de Glace is in continuous motion. The 200-metre-deep glacier flows for 7 km down the northern side of Mont Blanc, at a rate of about one centimetre per hour. Glaciers grow during the winter, when snowfall adds to the total accumulated iced water, and shrink in the summer, as warm temperatures cause the outer layers to melt. Mer de Glace is no different, except that it’s been shrinking at a record pace. In 1988, when the cable car station was inaugurated to facilitate visits to the glacier, tourists took only three steps to reach the ice. Today, there are 430 steps, and more will most likely be added every year.
“Climate change is being discussed everywhere, from classrooms to intergovernmental meetings,” adds Shornikova. “Yet few of us understand how it all happens, or what the statistical data mean. Here, the impact of climate change becomes shockingly obvious.”
A monument to climate change
Glaciologists expect glaciers around the world to continue to retreat, as the climate keeps warming. According to Climate Central, data pulled from NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show that ten of the hottest years on record occurred in the past 20 years, and half of those where recorded in the 2010s. 2015, 2016 and 2017 were significantly warmer than 2014, the next warmest year.
As a result, glaciers are melting faster than they replenish. In the United States, the famous Glacier National Park, once home to 150 glaciers, will soon be glacier-free. The remaining 25 glaciers are projected to have melted by 2030.
South American glaciers are threatened by a similar fate, and a study published in Nature in 2017 warns that one-third of the ice contained within Asia’s glaciers will be lost by 2100 even if we limit global temperature rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Since we’ve already reached a warming of an average of 1.12°C — and the latest projections point to an increase of 3.2°C by the end of the century, if no action is taken — there seems to be a very slim chance of avoiding the worse. Even the 2015 Paris Agreement, which limits warming to 2°C, would be largely insufficient.
Glaciers act as crucial reservoirs of freshwater for downstream communities, irrigating fields and replenishing natural sources during the spring and summer. Their disappearance threatens the livelihoods of millions of people, as it affects drinking water supplies and food production, and is expected to further disrupt the planet’s delicate climate system.
Adding more water to the oceans
Once melted, the water from glaciers and giant ice sheets ends up in the oceans, contributing to sea level rise. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, about 15 to 35 per cent of the total projected global sea level rise is expected to come from melting glaciers.
Even a small increase in sea levels has devastating effects on coastal habitats. As seawater reaches further inland, it causes destructive erosion, wetland flooding, aquifer and agricultural soil contamination, and habitat loss. Sea level rise threatens thousands of coastal cities worldwide, as well as entire countries.
Yet, according to UN Environment’s Emissions Gap Report 2017, even if countries fulfil their pledges to limit global warming to under 2°C, their actions would only represent a third of what is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
As world leaders, businesses and citizens gear up for the upcoming Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, California on 12-14 September 2018, the silent demise of Mer de Glace serves as a reminder of how quickly climate change is affecting our planet and how urgent it is for us to act.