Environment

Are Some Of The Earth's Glaciers Actually Becoming Larger?

In the midst of global warming, some glaciers on our planet appear to be growing instead of shrinking.

Climate Change And Growing Glaciers: A Complex Story

Glaciers are literally big, moving ice cubes. If you keep them exposed to above-freezing temperatures (or hotter) then they will melt at a rate relative to the surrounding temperature. For this reason, glaciers are universally regarded as being the indicators of the severity of global warming and climate change in any given place where glaciers are present, essentially the global climate equivalent of "canaries in coal mines".

It’s a startling fact that no one can afford to ignore that a staggering 90% of glaciers and ice fields worldwide are in retreat due to a rising surface and atmosphere temperature, an effect which is particularly bullying the Arctic region at this time. But rest assured, in fact be astounded to learn, that some glaciers are either holding a steady position, or, even more surprisingly, have been advancing at greater rates than even before climate change became noticeable.

But hold it! Before you run out and barge into the nearest newspaper editor’s office or post on Tumblr about how climate change really is a hoax invented by anti-oil and fracking coalitions, glaciers don’t necessarily advance due to cooler temperatures. and in this case, they aren’t. At least not really. What is happening with these select and lucky few is that climate change has caused an increase in precipitation, which of course in the winter comes in the form of heavy snowfall. And so you understand exactly how that is possible, let’s take a quick look at how glaciers are formed in the first place: Snow falls heavily on a mountain through the winter, but never completely melts during the year, so more snow falls the next winter over the first snow field. This exact process gets repeated at least 5 to 10 times consecutively, and the increasing pressure of the refrozen snow then causes the mass to slide or sink downward, and just like that a small glacier or other ice-mass is formed.

There is clear evidence now that climate change is not a single, basic event affecting the world uniformly, but instead is a series of micro-climate changes, working their effects in different and fascinating (yet terrifying) ways. Now, let’s take a closer look at some of these growing glaciers (at least the most notable ones), where they are, how much the increased precipitation is affecting them, and any impact their advances are having on their local ecosystems, for both the good and the bad.

Mt. Shasta, California

At 14,179 feet (4321 meters), Mt. Shasta is the second highest peak in the Cascades Range, and the fifth highest in the U.S. state of California, and one of the most voluminous strato-volcanoes in the Cascade arc. Recent studies have revealed that, despite a 2 to 3 degrees Celsius temperature increase in recent decades, virtually all of Shasta’s relatively small glaciers, particularly the seven named ones, have all expanded due to an increase in precipitation in the area, as the same moisture from the Pacific Ocean that makes the Redwoods grow tall has been carried further inland, resulting in around 40% more snowfall accumulating than is melted on the mountain than in the past. Whitney Glacier, the longest on the mountain, is larger today than it was even in 1890, and Hotlum Glacier is now the largest in the state of California. The bonus to all of this is that now the ski season may last longer on Shasta.

Mt. St. Helens, Washington

Mt. St. Helens is best known for its major eruption on May 18th, 1980 that reduced the height of the mountain by roughly 1,300 feet, left a mile-wide horseshoe crater facing north, and a desolate, fallout landscape extending for miles to the north of the mountain. Despite the regular (though mild) volcanic activity since, consistent snowfall in the winters, combined with the far inside of the crater being constantly in the shade, has allowed for the creatively, and now officially, named "Crater Glacier" to begin forming around the two lava domes that have been building since the major eruption. Due to the preposterous idea that a glacier could ever grow inside a volcanic crater following an eruption, the glacier wasn’t discovered for at least nine years after the eruption. Today, it has expanded to the point of completely encircling the lava domes, and is set to expand beyond the actual crater of the mountain. But precipitation hasn’t necessarily increased the growth rate here, and this mountain certainly does not receive more snow than neighboring Rainier. Mostly it’s the shade and covering of rocks and debris from avalanches, as well as the volcanic rock collected on the crater floor acting as an insulating barrier against volcanic heat, that have nurtured the world’s newest glacier.

Hubbard Glacier, Alaska

Hubbard Glacier, a tidewater glacier (meaning it calves off icebergs) in Disenchantment Bay at the southeast corner of Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in the United States, is one of the largest of its type in the world. An increase in precipitation over the past century has accelerated the advance of this massive, 75-mile long glacier further out into the bay, occasionally blocking the entrance to Russell Fjord, and thus threatening the sea life by way of a decrease in salinity and further threatening to flood the nearby town of Yakutat. The first major fjord blocking event occurred in May of 1986, when the glacier pushed forward just enough to block the entrance to the fjord, and the fjord became a lake rising 82 feet (25 meters) in surface level before the ice dam gave way and caused a cascade 35 times the size of Niagara Falls. A less severe repeat of this event occurred again in 2002, when the opening to the fjord was blocked again before rain washed the dam away. This is a classic example of glacial advance due to snowfall far outpacing glacial calving and advancing when the climate is warmer, and then a retreat when the weather becomes cooler and there’s less snowfall. Also like the Whitney Glacier on Mt. Shasta, Hubbard Glacier is larger today than it was back in the 1890s.

Bruggen Glacier and Perito Moreno Glaciers, Chile

Like those in the Arctic, many of the Patagonian ice-fields have both been bearing the worst of climate change, as their myriad glaciers are rapidly creeping back into the interior of the ice fields. However, it would appear that a couple of the larger glaciers in the region, such as Bruggen and Perito Moreno, aren't shying away from the tourists. Both glaciers are tidewaters, or at least their termini are on water and they release icebergs, and both glaciers are on opposite sides of the Southern Patagonian Icefield. Bruggen, at 41 miles, is the largest glacier to flow on the west side of the ice field, and is also the longest glacier in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica, and that is a record it shall continue to flaunt. Perito Moreno, a much more modest 19 miles long, is still nevertheless known as the “White Giant”, and is a popular tourist attraction within Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina, owing to its close proximity and the happy fact that it’s still advancing at a racehorse rate of 7 feet per day, and occasionally creeping past this land point where the visitor’s center and observation decks are located, effectively (and like Hubbard Glacier) blocking the southern reaches of Lago Argentino. In fact, Google Earth imagery of the glacier, taken from March of 2016, reveals that this glacier is currently accessible by tourists from the visitor’s center area.

We now know how glaciers such as the Hubbard, the ones on Mt. Shasta, and Crater Glacier can continue to advance despite some warming in their areas, but even science hasn’t been able to explain properly how only selected glaciers in Patagonia can advance while others retreat. The phenomenon of micro-climates is one plausibility, but Bruggen and Perito Moreno aren’t even in the same areas, or on the same side.

Karakoram Mountains, Pakistan, India, and China

Now, while the previous entries were in mostly isolated locations and were individual, the Karkoram Mountains as a whole have been experiencing a dramatic increase in snowfall, and are now the most heavily glaciated region on Earth outside of the polar regions. Between 28% and 50% of the mountain range is covered in glaciers, with Siachen (47 miles) and Biafo being the two longest, and the second and third longest glaciers globally outside of the polar regions. High altitude may also be a factor for these particular glaciers, as virtually all of the glacier termini are still over 11,000 feet in elevation. Incidentally, the mountains also contain the greatest concentration of peaks over 8,000 meters, with K2 as the crown jewel high point due to ongoing geologic activity, as the mountains are the main junction point between Eurasia and the Indian Subcontinent. Locals actually fear their advances, and the increased chances of greater flooding from glacial runoffs.

The Fate of the Glaciers of Tomorrow

That all said, these glacial advances in the face of global warming and climate change is strictly temporary. When the average temperature increases further, the warming will catch up to even these, and they’ll like start retreating as well. The 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris set commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, which was agreed among 195 sovereign nations, including all of the European Union, with a particular suggestion of reducing greenhouse gases by 40% by 2030 compared to 1990 emissions, and these may ultimately save many of our world's most unique features. But for now, and until the effects of climate change reversal are clear, there’s at least a few glacial features that may still exist some short while after all the others have vanished. But even then, thanks to the evidence of Crater Glacier, at least we know that glaciers can always make a comeback in the distant future, given the right weather conditions. And to answer the title question: Yes, some glaciers really are growing.

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