From the southern border of Germany to the highest peaks in Africa, glaciers around the world have served as moneymaking tourist attractions, natural climate records for scientists and beacons of beliefs for indigenous groups.
With many glaciers rapidly melting because of climate change, the disappearance of the ice sheets is sure to deal a blow to countries and communities that have relied on them for generations — to make electricity, to draw visitors and to uphold ancient spiritual traditions.
The ice masses that formed over millennia from compacted snow have been melting since the time of the Industrial Revolution, a process that has accelerated in recent years.
The retreat can be seen in Africa, on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the jagged peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains jut into the sky above a jungle. The peaks once held more than 40 glaciers, but fewer than half of them remained by 2005. Experts believe the last of the mountains’ glaciers could disappear within 20 years. The disappearance means trouble for land-locked Uganda, which gets nearly half of its power from hydroelectricity, including the power plants that rely on steady water flow from the Rwenzori glaciers.
“That hydroelectric power runs much better on more regular flows than it does peak and troughs,” said Richard Taylor, hydrogeology professor, University College, London.
On the southern edge of Germany’s border with Austria, only half a square kilometre of ice remains on five glaciers combined. Experts estimate that is 88 per cent less than the amount of ice that existed around 1850, and that the remaining glaciers will melt in 10 to 15 years.
As glaciers vanish, experts say, local ecosystems will begin to change as well— something already being studied at the Humboldt Glacier in Venezuela, which could disappear within the next two decades.