Melting Glaciers Are Significant Cause of Rising Sea Levels

rate of melting is 18% more quickly than previously believed

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Melting glaciers have caused an estimated 25 to 30 percent of rising sea levels, environmental news site EcoWatch reported. The news comes from a study of 19,000 glaciers that also showed they’re melting more rapidly than previously thought. Rising sea levels could have surprising business development advantages while also having devastating consequences for populated lands.

Glacier Melt

The 19,000 glaciers are melting 18 percent more quickly than previous studies have suggested. According to the EcoWatch article, from 1961 to 2016 non-polar glaciers lost enough ice “to turn the U.S. into an ice rink four feet thick.” Every winter, some water freezes again and rejoins the polar ice caps and many glaciers, but this level is dipping dramatically in recent decades. Here’s what to expect in the future.

Potential Oceans of 2030

Sea Levels

In the next 10 years, rising sea levels will be surprisingly evident due to business development in the Arctic region. “For hundreds of years now, people have wanted to find a famous northwest passage, a shipping route that goes from Europe or eastern North America to the Pacific without having to go all the way down around the tip of South America or through the Panama Canal,” said Dr. Harold J. Tobin, Professor of Geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “In 2007 for the first time ever, navigable waters for ships that were not icebreaker class ships opened up through the Arctic Ocean. This is likely to continue to happen […] more and more frequently and persistently by 2030.”

The implications for shipping businesses and those who employ them are tremendous. Dr. Tobin said that these navigable waters will also lead to new locations becoming available for oil and gas exploration, as well as mining. However, environmentally speaking, several concerns arise.

“At the current rate of change, by 2030 or so, the sea ice is projected to be less than one-third of its average level for the 1979 to 1990 time period,” Dr. Tobin said. “Certainly what’s been going on since the late 1970s is a rapid decrease in the total amount of ice in the Arctic that makes it from one season to the next. Sometimes there’s more ice, sometimes there’s less, but overall there’s a huge trend since 1979 to 2010 of decreasing amounts of Arctic sea ice over all that time.” People who live on low-elevation land are the most vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Populations in Low-Lying Areas at Risk

The dangers of rising sea levels are most apparent in the countries of Kiribati, southwest of the Hawaiian islands, and the Maldives, south of India. As ocean levels rise and the yearly glacial and polar ice melts and freezes over again, saltwater and freshwater are displaced. This displacement can wreak havoc on countless species of ocean life. “Rising sea levels displace fresh water in the aquifers and it erodes and floods the island, so even if the island doesn’t actually sink under the waves literally—or even before that happens—they would be rendered uninhabitable and this is already underway in both of those places,” Dr. Tobin said. “It’s looking like in a matter of decades, not centuries, these countries may become literally uninhabitable.” Together, their populations total in the hundreds of thousands. Former Kiribati president, Anote Tong, purchased 6,000 acres in Fiji in 2014 to plan for the country’s eventual, permanent resettlement.

Other countries would suffer similar fates. Tuvalu, an atoll near Tonga, could also become unlivable in the next 40 to 50 years for the same reasons as Kiribati and the Maldives. Dr. Tobin said, “A 1.5-meter sea level rise, something that we could see in a couple centuries, maybe even in a century, would place 16 percent of Bangladesh under the tidal range, displacing 17 million people.”

With glaciers melting more rapidly than expected and constituting nearly one-third of rising sea levels, the world may look very different in the next century. Shipping and fossil fuel companies can expect to reap the benefits of more temperate Arctic waters, but low-elevation coastal areas could be underwater in our lifetime.

Dr. Harold J. Tobin

Dr. Harold J. Tobin contributed to this article. Dr. Tobin is Professor of Geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He earned his B.S. in Geology and Geophysics from Yale University and his Ph.D. in Earth Sciences from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was named a Best Instructor by students at UW-Madison, and he was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of America.