Review of MELTDOWN
What happens when all the ice is gone?
In August of last year, I had the privilege to visit Glacier National Park in Montana. One of the highlights of the trip was to hike to Grinnell Glacier (pictured in my photo above), which is the main attraction of the Many Glacier area of the park. I saw a lot of glaciers across the 60+ miles of the park I hiked. But something struck me about all of them: despite them being massive, they still seemed. . . kind of . . . small?
And they are. Because they are all melting.
Below is what Grinnell Glacier looked like in 1910. The lake you see in my photo above – upper Grinnell Lake – didn’t even exist a century ago. It only exists because the glacier has melted. You can click here to see more shocking comparison photos of how much the glaciers in Montana have melted in the past century.
Our world is melting. Fast. What I witnessed at Glacier National Park is happening everywhere on our planet. From the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, to the glaciers of the Andes, Himalayas, and the Rockies. Glacier National Park may not have any glaciers left in the coming decades, and almost certainly not by the end of the century.
But what does that mean for our planet? How important are glaciers to our planet’s health and climate? As it turns out, glaciers are very important, and their loss is already having consequences.
In Meltdown: The Earth Without Glaciers, Jorge Daniel Taillant takes you on a science adventure of everything you’ve ever wanted to know about glaciers. From their crucial role in the world’s water supply to their impact on ocean currents and jet streams. Our soon to be world without glaciers will be a tough one to adapt to.
Glaciers form in high altitude alpine environments where the average temperature is at or below freezing. In warmer months, glaciers slowly melt providing steady water flow to lower elevation areas and are crucial to mountain ecosystems. In the colder months, glaciers grow from the accumulation of snow and ice. As our planet warms, however, the melting phase is outpacing the growing phase, resulting in net declines in glacier sizes. Eventually, they fully melt.
Glacier melt, as Taillant states, is not a cause of climate change, but a symptom of it. But the rapid melting of glaciers contributes to warming in the form of a feedback loop. Our warming planet is causing glaciers and ice sheets to melt. As they melt, more earth and water are exposed, which is darker than white ice, causing more heat to be absorbed by the planet causing increased warming. On and on the cycle goes.
Meltdown focuses on several key impacts of melting glaciers. Most impactful is rising sea levels that have already began to have impacts in low lying areas like the Florida Keys, Venice, Italy, and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. As massive glaciers and ice sheets in the Antarctica and Greenland melt, our ocean and seas will continue to rise several meters over the coming century. Tens of millions of people will have to relocate in the coming decades.
Other consequences are more immediate for communities living downstream of glaciers in mountain environments. These communities rely on glacier melt water for agriculture and drinking. Once the glaciers are gone, however, these delicate dependencies will disappear. More terrifyingly, “glacier tsunamis,” which occur when large chunks of glaciers crash into the melt water lakes below, cause massive flooding and mudslides with little notice, killing everything – including people – in their paths. As glaciers become more destabilized from rapid melting, such tragedies will become more common.
Finally, the effects of rapid melting are changing our whether patterns. Ocean currents and jet streams are dependent on the cold air and water in the Arctic and Antarctica. As the poles warm (more than twice as fast as the rest of planet), however, currents slow and the temperature contrast decreases. The result is stalling weather systems and extreme weather events — think prolonged drought, deep freezes, intense heatwaves, and major flooding.
Meltdown is a wonderful book packed with information about glaciers and their crucial role in earth’s climate. The rapid human-caused warming of our planet has likely passed a tipping point where we will not see ice growth again for at least half a million years, and the Greenland ice sheet is likely to fully melt even if we were to stop all emissions today. The consequences of the meltdown will be felt globally. It’s on us to mitigate and adapt as quickly as possible.
Go see a glacier while you still can.
Published: October 2021
ICYMI: I published my library last week. Check it out!
If you think this sounds interesting, bookmark these other great reads:
A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell us About the Destiny of the Human Species by Rob Dunn (2021)
The Physics of Climate Change by Laurence M. Krauss (2021)
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