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GLACIERS -- The Cold Hard Facts Of Climate Change

Updated on June 13, 2017

Glaciers grow and melt in rhythms that span thousands of years, regardless of changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide

PHOTO - Konrad Steffen
PHOTO - Konrad Steffen

A glacier is a thick mass of ice that covers a large land area for a long time. Glaciers form when snow accumulates on a patch of land and compresses under its own weight. These huge bodies of continuously accumulating ice and compacted snow grow for periods of tens to hundreds of years, sometimes spanning tens of thousands of square kilometers, and many times lasting for many thousands of years. They form in mountains and valleys and at the North and South Poles. They deform under their own immense weight and slowly move. Pieces of glaciers that break off and float in oceans are icebergs. Today more than 90% of Earth’s glacial ice exists in the gigantic Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

Long-Term Rhythms

Throughout Earth’s existence, glaciers have grown and shrunk in rhythms of change that existed long before human beings dominated the scene. North America, for example, has endured glacial cover extending well south of the Canadian boarder (thousands of years ago). [See maps below]

ANCIENT North American Glacial Cover
ANCIENT North American Glacial Cover
MODERN North American Glacial Retreat
MODERN North American Glacial Retreat

Glacial growth and shrinkage (or advance and retreat), therefore, is a normal part of Earth’s long-term climate cycle.

Shortsighted Reasoning

Recent cries of catastrophic climate change depict human beings as threatening forces who speed up the melting of glaciers by adding more carbon dioxide (CO2) to Earth’s atmosphere. Our industrial CO2, the reasoning goes, is responsible for turning up the heat of the whole planet. News reports of glaciers melting all over the world (and at faster rates), thus, pour into information media daily. Glacial melting has to be proof of human-caused, CO2 global warming. Right?

In light of credible evidence to the contrary, I have come to believe that these cries and accusing reports are unfounded—NOT based on the real facts. Instead of real facts, a combination of misunderstanding and myopic number handling is driving the popular belief that CO2 will tip a very sensitive scale to cause a global meltdown. The facts simply do NOT support this fear of catastrophic climate change.

The Facts About Glaciers

According to lead authors, Craig D. Idso, Robert M. Carter, and S. Fred Singer, in CLIMATE CHANGE RECONSIDERED II, Chapter 5.3, page 637 [a meticulously researched book based on peer-reviewed papers in respected scientific journals directly related to climate (free pdf copy available online)]:

  • Of Earths 160,000 presently known glaciers, 67,000 (42%) have been inventoried.
  • Data on mass loss and gain over a period longer than a year exists for 200 or so glaciers.
  • Data over a five-year period exists for 115 glaciers—only 79 glaciers, where both summer and winter data exists.
  • If data records exist for over ten years, then only 42 glaciers qualify.

See also THE 2011 INTERIM REPORT by the same lead authors [free pdf copy available online].

Researchers, therefore, know very little about the true state of most of Earth’s glaciers. Most of what they do know is about Greenland, the Arctic, Antarctic, and the few other areas where data records of ten or more years exist. Remember, over 90% of Earth’s glacial ice is restricted to a few regions, but even what researchers know about this huge percentage does NOT support the claim that human CO2 threatens catastrophic climate change.

More specifically, global data on currently-inventoried glaciers does NOT support claims made by the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) that most glaciers are retreating or melting abnormally.

  • Africa – Kilimanjaro glacier began retreating around the year 1880 as the result of a drastic regional drop in humidity, thus reducing precipitation (snow fall), decreasing cloudiness, and increasing shortwave solar radiation (more and longer direct heating). This and other East African glaciers continue on this melting trend (not accelerating) caused by the enduring nineteenth-century climatic shift in precipitation and cloud cover, where no evidence of a sudden temperature change appears during that century.
  • Antarctica – Glacial activity here has followed the millennial-scale rhythm of advance and retreat that is evident elsewhere in the world, as expected for ice masses emerging from the coldest part of the last colder glacial epoch into a relatively warmer interglacial epoch (the current Holocene interglacial period).
  • Arctic – 80% of the ice loss (over the period of its observation) is expected for a glacier emerging from the previous colder millennium. Rate of decline is the same as BEFORE the year 1950 (prior to widespread fossil fuel CO2), and this rate of decline is decelerating (glaciers losing smaller amounts of mass each year).
  • European Arctic – This area has shown glacier expansion over the past few decades.
  • Eurasian Arctic – Weather stations in Novaya Zemlya have shown summer temperatures 0.3° to 0.5° C colder than over the prior 40 years and winter temperatures 2.3° to 2.8° C colder over the same period. Some Arctic regions are experiencing some of the lowest temperatures of the entire Holocene epoch, during a period when atmospheric CO2 levels are supposedly higher than in millions of years.
  • Europe – Glaciers in the Swiss Alps have advanced and retreated twelve times during the current, warmer Holocene epoch. Since 7,000 years ago, these oscillations have decreased, even more markedly since 3,200 years ago. Rate of shrinkage follows the same trend as from year 1865 (NO faster decreasing trend), even during a period from the years 1950 to present when the rate of CO2 rise increased five-fold. Some European glaciers also are advancing.
  • North America – Glaciers show NO faster decreasing trend, as they continue in a non-CO2-forced, multi-century, climate oscillation.
  • South America – Glaciers began retreating between the years 1850 and 1880, oscillating through periods of loss and gain irrespective of atmospheric CO2 concentration.

The above findings (reported by Singer and Idso) mirror similar findings about Himalayan glaciers in a report by V.K. Raina, former Deputy Director General, Geological Survey of India, in a publication by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India [HIMALAYAN GLACIERS, A State-of-The-Art Review of Glacial Studies, Glacial Retreat and Climate Change (2009) (free pdf copy available online)]:

  • Himalayan glaciers have been shrinking in volume since the middle of the nineteenth century.
  • Himalayan glaciers melt and grow for specific, complex reasons other than temperature variations, and they have NOT shown signs of abnormal retreat, especially in recent years.

So What’s Wrong With The News ?

News about melting glaciers is only partly true – it fails miserably at showing the complete, complex, long-term, accurate picture.

As a whole, Earth’s glaciers are NOT melting any faster than they were over a hundred years ago, and they seem to be melting more slowly, even growing more massive in some cases. Isolated reports or reports based on very short periods of data collection are hysterically shortsighted – these reports play on people’s preference for simple, sensationalized stories (in this case, the apparently fictional story of how CO2 melts glaciers).

The True Story

Over the past two and a half billion years, Earth has gone through five great ice ages or glacial ages, where vast areas of the entire planet have been covered in thick sheets of ice. [see chart below]

Earth's Great Ice Ages For The Past 2.5 Billion Years
Earth's Great Ice Ages For The Past 2.5 Billion Years


Within the great ice ages, there have been fluctuations between epochs of more ice coverage and less ice coverage.  In other words, little melt-and-grow rhythms exist within the greater melt-and-grow rhythms. [see chart below]

Earth's Cool Periods For The Past 450,000 years
Earth's Cool Periods For The Past 450,000 years

Earth currently is in the great Quaternary Ice Age in an epoch of less ice cover known as the Holocene interglacial period. Glaciologists believe that there have been as many as twenty-two smaller glacial epochs so far in this greater Quaternary Ice Age. The last severe glacial epoch of the current great ice age ended approximately 10,000 years ago, so we are still melting down from that colder epoch (again, no faster than we were a hundred or so years ago, BEFORE widespread fossil fuel use).

Presently, glaciers cover vast areas of the Polar Regions, and exist to a lesser extent in mountain ranges of approximately forty-seven countries, on every continent except mainland Australia. There have been periods in Earth’s existence when the entire planet was in a glacial deep freeze, and other periods when the planet was devoid of ice. We are now somewhere in between, inhabitants of a fluid dynamic system (immense in both space and time) that oscillates in millennium-scale rhythms. These grand rhythms overpower the collective rhythms of all humans who have ever lived, and these grand rhythms continue to overpower human industrial rhythms driven by fossil fuels.


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