Shrinking glaciers are a stark gauge of a warming world. By the end of the century, the planet’s 210,000 glaciers, many of them already in retreat, are projected to wither to between half and three quarters of today’s size.
But what about the terrain revealed as the ice retreats? The loss of glaciers could expose territory equivalent to the entire country of Finland—huge stretches of land that are both relatively pristine and, in many cases, unprotected, according to new research.
“Vast terrestrial, marine and freshwater ecosystems are emerging,” geomorphologist Jean-Baptiste Bosson said in an email. Enhancing protections of “post glacial ecosystems will help limit direct damages and secure their ecological evolution.”
Bosson, a scientist at the Conservatory of Natural Spaces of Haute Savoie in the French Alps, has spent years studying the fate of glaciers in his home region, while urging the public to staunch the flood of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that is behind their demise. While the plight of glaciers has gotten a lot of attention, the fate of the freshly revealed land has gotten less. He and seven other Alps-based scientists wanted to address that oversight.
To calculate the amount of terrain that will be uncovered during this century as glaciers retreat, as well as the character of the new landscapes, they turned to a computer model designed to predict how glaciers will change as the climate does. Using profiles of individual glaciers around the world, as well as the land or water beneath them, the researchers were able to construct detailed predictions about how glaciers and their surroundings might look in 2100.
One of the biggest takeaways is that the outcome could differ dramatically depending on whether or not we humans manage to quench our appetite for fossil fuels. If net emissions are cut to zero by 2050—a target set by a host of governments and corporations—78% of the area covered by glaciers today would still be under ice. If carbon emissions continue soaring, the model shows glaciers shrinking by around 340,000 square kilometers at the end of the century—half their current extent. In total, more than 80% of the world’s glaciers could vanish, the scientists reported in Nature in mid-August.
Either way, glaciers will be smaller, leaving behind ice-free land, lakes and tidelands large enough to cover Finland in the worst case or Nepal in the best case. All of these calculations understate the overall loss of the world’s ice, because they don’t include the vast ice sheets covering much of Antarctica and Greenland. That ice behaves in ways different enough from glaciers that the researchers couldn’t fit them into the model.
The largest expanses of new territory will appear in Alaska, the edges of Greenland and the Himalayas. Slightly more than three quarters of that will be on land. Glacier-free areas below sea level will appear around Antarctica, the Russian Arctic and Svalbard, in Norway.
The result will be “rare pristine terrestrial, marine and freshwater ecosystems,” the scientists report. In some cases, the land will be frigid, offering refuges for cold-loving species such as Pacific salmon. In other places, such as the Andes and Iceland, glaciers will give way to milder climates. Some places will be rocky, steep cliffs hostile to most life. In others, such as New Zealand, the Rocky Mountains and the Alps, forests will quickly take over.
These “new” ecosystems have so far been largely overlooked when it comes to conservation. Roughly half the areas lie inside protected areas, such as national parks, or are covered by the treaty governing international management of the Antarctic. The percentage of protected areas that will be freshly exposed is particularly low in Asia and the Canadian Arctic, the authors found. “It seems urgent to secure the existence, functioning and values” of these new lands, the scientists declared.
So far, such efforts have been small and localized. In 2020, France created a protected area around Mont Blanc where habitat protection is prioritized and human activities such as mountaineering are restricted. Other countries with laws protecting glaciers could extend them to areas that lose glacier coverage, the scientists suggest. They also point to the possibility of an international system of protections similar to the treaty governing Antarctica, or the United Nation’s network of designated World Heritage sites.
While these glaciers won’t finish shrinking for decades, now is the time to establish protections, said Bosson. After the new terrain is open, it will attract the attention of hikers, hunters and fishers, as well as extractive industries such as mining companies. “Nature conservation is very hard to develop on an area where there is a lot of human activities or economic opportunities,” said Bosson.
Bosson, et. al. “Future emergence of new ecosystems caused by glacial retreat.” Nature. Aug. 16, 2023.
Images: Pedersen Glacier, at Aialik Bay in Alaska’s Kenai Mountains. Photos courtesy of Louis H. Pedersen (1917) and Bruce F. Molina (2005), obtained from the Glacier Photograph Collection, Boulder, Colorado USA: National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology.