The UN Environment Program released its latest results in March. These are collated by the World Glacier Monitoring Service, an organisation that has been measuring and observing the world's glaciers for over a century. It has also been tracking the mass of 30 reference glaciers since the 1980s. It is this body of data which is the foundation of the new report.Prof. Dr. Wilfried Haeberli, Director of the Service, summed up the results: "The latest figures are part of what appears to be an accelerating trend with no apparent end in sight... This continues the trend in accelerated ice loss during the past two and a half decades and brings the total loss since 1980 to more than 10.5 metres of water equivalent."
Since the millenium the rate of melt has shifted from an average 0.3m per annum to half a metre a year. In the last year of record, 2005-2006, that rate has doubled. These measurements are made in water equivalent quantities. On average, 1.1m of water is around 1.5m ice, meaning that the average glacier has actually shrunk by 11.5m since 1980, around 38 feet.
Similar conclusions from specific regions of the planet have been queried in the past by certain glaciologists on the basis that seeming shifts in glacier size in the short term can often be attributed to local stimuli and thus, are not directly indicative of global warming. The strength of the U.N.E.P. study, however, is it's breadth both geographically and temporally. Although a few of the glaciers in the study sample have gained mass in the last few decades, the global trend is clearly one of diminishing size.
We are familiar with the threatened rise in global sea levels and all the issues that it would entail. However, the wider consequences of accelerated glacial melting are potentially far more serious, as Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, explained: "Millions if not billions of people depend directly or indirectly on these natural water storage facilities for drinking water, agriculture, industry and power generation during key parts of the year." Glaciers are the second largest source of stored water on our planet, only exceeded by the oceans. They act like massive capacitors, storing water and then slowly releasing it into the local environment. And as they diminish, the lives of vast portions of the world population are at stake. The tropical glaciers of Latin America are a case in point. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) predicts that this particular group will disappear completely before 2030, leaving major cities in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia without water. The irony lies in the sad reality that this situation has been caused principally by the actions of some of the world's richest nations and yet the negative impacts are most strongly felt by the poorest. President Evo Morales of Bolivia even went on record last year, saying he would pursue legal action against wealthy countries if help is not forthcoming to combat the crisis. "It's not a question of cooperation. It's an obligation", he said.
The impact is not limited to Latin America, however. Major countries such as India, China and even the United States will be affected. The impact could well be catastrophic, leading to a crisis in global food security, mass migration and conflict.
Glaciers have played a key part in our understanding of the carbon cycle of the planet, the levels of carbon dioxide trapped in the ice layers providing a history of atmospheric composition that stretches back into the mists of time. Now, it seems, they are giving us a much starker warning. To quote Achim Steiner again: "There are many canaries emerging in the climate change coal mine. The glaciers are perhaps among those making the most noise and it is absolutely essential that everyone sits up and takes notice.
"The litmus test will come in late 2009 at the climate convention meeting in Copenhagen. Here governments must agree on a decisive new emissions reduction and adaptation-focused regime. Otherwise, and like the glaciers, our room for manoeuvre and the opportunity to act may simply melt away," he further on explains.
The global community is finally starting to wake up to the fact that solving this problem may require fundamental alterations to the lifestyles of the developed world. In a recent speech in Chiba, Japan, Tony Blair outlined the current situation as thus: "If the average person in the US is, say, to emit per capita, one-tenth of what they do today and those in the UK or Japan one-fifth, we're not talking of adjustment, we're talking about a revolution".