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Climate change: World’s best-known glaciers are melting

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The glaciers of a third of the 50 World Heritage sites are doomed to disappear by 2050, regardless of the efforts made, as stated in the most recent UNESCO report, in collaboration with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The increase in CO2 emissions that are warming temperatures is the reason why there is an accelerated melting of the glaciers. For this reason, 17 World Heritage sites will not have the great masses of ice and snow that accumulate in mountainous areas and polar regions, in three decades.

Comparison of the La Maladeta glacier in 1999 and 2007. | Image of the Government of Aragon

World’s best-known glaciers

A report presented by UNESCO indicates that the world’s glacial heritage is in a worrying situation: each year it loses an average of 58,000 million tons of ice, the equivalent of the total volume of water used by Spain and France.

In total, there are 460 glaciers that UNESCO indicates as seriously threatened, after evaluating their evolution between 2000 and 2020. In the list are emblematic places, such as the African glaciers that persist in Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya and the Rwenzori-Virunga massif. In South America, the study highlights the glaciers of Los Alerces National Park in Argentina, which have lost 45.6% of their total mass compared to the year 2000, and the glaciers of Huascarán National Park (Peru), which have shrunk 15% since 2000.

North America is not spared, which is losing ice in the famous national parks of Yellowstone and Yosemite, in the USA, nor Europe, where the heat is melting the Dolomites of the Italian Alps or the last Pyrenean ice between Spain and France.

In our country, the Monte Perdido glacier, in Huesca, has visibly decreased in size and thickness in recent years. For its part, the Maladeta glacier, also in Huesca, has lost 60% of its surface in 30 years.

In Asia, the glaciers in the Protected Areas of the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan (China) stand out, where the greatest loss of mass is registered in relation to 2000 (57.2%) and also the fastest melting glacier. The study also cites glaciers in the western Tien-Shan (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan) that have shrunk by 27% since 2000.

These are the glaciers that will disappear in 2050 for each continent:

Africa

According to available data, all glaciers in African World Heritage sites will be gone by 2050, including those in Kilimanjaro National Park and Mount Kenya.

Asia

  • Glaciers of the Protected Areas of the Three Parallel Rivers Park in Yunnan (China) – Number 1 with the highest mass loss compared to (57.2%), it is also the fastest melting glacier on the entire list.
  • Western Tien-Shan Glaciers (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan) – have decreased by 27% since 2000.

Europe

  • Glaciers of the Monte Perdido Pyrenees (France, Spain).
  • Glaciers of the Dolomites.

Latin America

  • Glaciers of Los Alerces National Park (Argentina) – Second highest mass loss compared to 2000 (45.6%).
  • Glaciers of the Huascarán National Park (Peru) – have decreased by 15% since 2000.

North America

  • Glaciers of Yellowstone National Park (United States of America).
  • Glaciers of Yosemite National Park (United States of America).
  • Glaciers of the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park (Canada, United States of America) – They have lost 26.5% of their volume in 20 years.

Oceania

  • The Te Wahipounamu Glacier Site – South West New Zealand (New Zealand) has lost 20% of its volume since 2000.

Faced with this situation, UNESCO called not only to drastically reduce carbon emissions but also to create an international fund for the monitoring and preservation of glaciers, which would support research, promote exchange networks between all parties and stakeholders and implement early warning and disaster risk reduction measures.

A threatened freshwater source

All the glaciers that make up the UNESCO world heritage are seriously threatened, and 60% of them show an “accelerated retreat” of their mass, the report says. This can have direct consequences on human well-being, the report adds.

One of the first effects of ice melting is its impact on access to fresh water. Half of humanity depends on glacial surfaces as a source of water resources, both for domestic use and for agriculture and hydroelectric power, in addition to having great cultural, religious and tourist importance, UNESCO points out in its report.

In addition, this alarming melting causes a 5% rise in sea levels globally.

The study offers a ray of hope: if global temperatures do not rise more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the rest of the glacial surface of these protected places could be saved.

In addition to drastically reducing carbon emissions, UNESCO advocates the creation of an international fund for the monitoring and conservation of glaciers. Such a fund would support comprehensive research, promote exchange networks among all stakeholders, and implement early warning and disaster risk reduction measures.

Negative mass balance

All glacial World Heritage sites had a negative mass balance between 2000 and 2020, meaning they lost more ice than they gained. The authors calculate that in these two decades an average of 58,000 million tons of ice have been lost each year, which is equivalent to the total water consumption in France and Spain combined.

“Assuming all meltwater eventually reached the ocean, ice loss from World Heritage sites caused about 4.5% of the observed global sea level rise between 2000 and 2020, about 3.22 millimetres.” adds the UNESCO report. Although a reduction of glaciers located in World Heritage areas has been detected in all regions,

The disappearance of these formations not only means the destruction of secular or ancient landscapes but also affects the “local hydrology”. The report cites, for example, “the expansion of glacial lakes” and changes in the flow of some North American rivers as some of the consequences. In other cases, gigantic mountain tsunamis associated with this melting have already been recorded, such as the landslide that occurred in October 2015 in the Wrangell-San Elías National Park and Reserve in the US and reached a height of 190 meters.

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