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Earth Lost a 'Staggering' 28 Trillion Tonnes of Ice in Just 23 Years

Mukul Periwal

13th October, 2020

“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”

This phrase is becoming true with every passing day. Global warming has been ever increasing and in turn, climate change as well. It has been held responsible for any changes in our nature, one of them being the melting of ice caps, glaciers, etc. We have been seeing global warming and its effects for quite a long time now, but its resultant adversities have grown exponentially in the past few years. 

One of the many adversities of the climate change that the scientists at Leeds and Edinburgh universities have recently observed is the ‘staggering’ loss of 28 trillion tonnes of ice between 1994 and 2017 and this was the first time that anyone had looked the entire planet for the ice melting (Ankel, S. (2020, August 23). Earth has lost a 'staggering' 28 trillion tonnes of ice to global warming in the last 23 years, UK scientists find. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.in/science/news/earth-has-lost-a-staggering-28-trillion-tonnes-of-ice-to-global-warming-in-the-last-23-years-uk-scientists-find/articleshow/77704803.cms)

Now, to put it forward as to why this loss of ice is called ‘staggering’, scientists, from these results, found out that the sea levels would rise up to three meters by the end of the century. One may think what’s the big deal about three meters? So, to put that in context, according to Professor Andy Shepherd every centimeter of sea-level rise means about a million people will be displaced from their low-lying homelands. Another example to understand this better is that 28 trillion tonnes of ice would cover the entire surface of the UK with a sheet of frozen water that is 100 meters thick. The largest chunk was melted from the Arctic Sea; it has lost 7.6 trillion tonnes since 1994, followed by Antarctic ice shelves and mountain glaciers with more than 6 trillion tonnes each. (Mooney, C. (2019, April 29). Antarctic ice loss has tripled in a decade. If that continues, we are in serious trouble. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2018/06/13/antarctic-ice-loss-has-tripled-in-a-decade-if-that-continues-we-are-in-serious-trouble/)

Ninety-nine percent of all freshwater ice on earth is sitting on top of Greenland and Antarctica, and a little more of it melts each year. And these resources are the ones that are facing the most damage. Greenland ice sheet, the world’s second-largest ice body, has reached a point of no return, i.e. it is melting at such a rapid pace that the annual snowfall isn’t even capable to replenish the lost ice and this pace is expected to be accelerating. The Antarctic ice sheet, the world’s largest one, is also facing these adversities. It is annually losing 200 billion tonnes of ice into the ocean which in turn raises the sea level by half a millimeter. It lost 219 billion tonnes from 2012 to 2017 which is approximately three times the 73 billion tonnes which were lost in the previous decade. West Antarctica is the area that is changing most rapidly in this. Even if we look at the remaining one percent of freshwater ice, the Himalayan glaciers upon thawing pose the largest threat of them all because these glaciers have toxic chemicals trapped inside of them, like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. As these glaciers thaw, these chemicals will mix into the freshwater ecosystem, threatening the lives of millions and billions of people. The rest of that 1% is hanging out underground, mostly in Arctic Tundra, in the form of permafrost, and the major and immediate threat with the thawing of permafrost would be of mercury poisoning because there is an approximate of 15 million gallons of mercury stored up in the Arctic permafrost (Schmitz, A. (2019, October 08). Watch what would happen if all the ice on Earth melted overnight. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.in/international/news/watch-what-would-happen-if-all-the-ice-on-earth-melted-overnight/articleshow/71492082.cms).

On top of that, the organic matter on the permafrost is a tasty meal for microorganisms and upon its digestion, they release the two most potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, and methane, which could double the current levels of greenhouse gases and, can raise the temperatures potentially by 3.5 degrees Celsius.

The more immediate threat of this ‘staggering’ amount of loss of ice includes major disruption to the biological health of Arctic and Antarctic waters, reducing the planet’s ability to reflect solar radiation back to space, increasing temperatures, loss of endemic flora and fauna, etc. But scientists still have some hope left to save some of it, if not all of it. They have estimated that there is a short window, maybe no more than a decade, for us to cut the greenhouse gas emissions or we will dive into the point of no return. And taking this opportunity and succeeding in it won’t be possible without the collective measures of the public. We have to cut our needs and use of resources to ensure the minimal amount of greenhouse gases emission, surely it would be a hell lot of difficult but what if we don’t do it and destroy our planet by keeping our needs first? We need to acknowledge this problem and fight it together, as one!   

About the Author

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Mukul is a 2nd year physics (hons) undergraduate at St. Xavier's College (Autonomous), Kolkata.