What is happening to the ice on the planet?

We have seen that changes in the ice are serious markers of a warming or cooling planet and some of the best and most obvious early warning signs, (see link in Conclusions ) but what is actually happening to the ice?

The first places to look are the Poles, but the North is quite different from the South. While Antarctica in the south is a thickly iced land mass the Arctic is floating ice, though close to the North Pole is Greenland which is another large land mass covered in thick ice. To get the two into an ice perspective, if all the Greenland ice melted, sea level would rise about 7 metres, but if Antarctica melted it would rise about 80 metres – Antarctica has about 91% of all the ice in the world. As the floating North Polar ice melts it has no direct impact on sea level but does carry huge climate implications. The ice is a great solar energy reflector but the replacing ocean a strong solar absorber.

The other ice on the planet is in the glaciers, and while if these melt we will not lose our coastal cities, they provide irrigation water through the crop growing season in most parts of the world. So we lose food. It all matters.

A little on glacier behaviour – another complex subject:

Glaciers live within different topographies – some have narrow troughs to run down and therefore narrow flows; some have wide troughs and flows; some finish with an ice shelf and some don’t; some have wide and some narrow iceberg calving fronts; and some just melt – so they behave differently. But there are a number of reasons why glacier retreat is becoming faster though all depend on higher temperatures.

Glaciers ending at the ocean were often ‘grounded’ so the ice flow simply stretched into the ocean but the glacier sat on rock. However a warmer world (and Greenland is now up about 5°) does all sorts of things. For a start glaciers thin over time, and for those ending in the ocean, when the depth of water is more than the now thinned glacier it floats on the ocean when it gets there. But a floating ice shelf is stressed by waves and tides, and stressed shelves break faster that grounded ones. So it is inevitable the rate of disintegration will increase greatly. The thinning may be the result of decades of melting, so we cannot date the problem to when the glacier starts breaking faster. This is the symptom but the cause is the warming. And floating ice shelves can be melted from a warmer ocean underneath as well as warmer air temperatures on top.

Images from space also clearly show lakes forming on the surface during summer and when big enough and warm enough they break down through the glacier (through holes called moulins) to the bedrock below from where the water escapes to the ocean. But while there is some debate about its impact when on the bedrock it is generally thought it lubricates the bottom of the glacier speeding it up. At the very least the melt water running away removes that amount of ice.

While the above involves land glaciers, the same appears to be true of the Ice Shelves as large amounts of melt water were seen on Larsen B and now on the Ronne, and clearly there have been substantial breaks following such surface water.

But a really big reason for speeding up glaciers is the removal of the ‘cork’ which is the Ice shelf it arrives at and which clearly hold them back. The glaciers can speed up by a factor of up to 5 times or even more as the ice shelves collapse, which is why the loss of Ice Shelves is so serious and the scientists are monitoring them so carefully.

So first we look at the Poles:


The ice on Antarctica produces glaciers which flow into the ocean, but they are so big they are called ‘ice streams’. Many arriving at the coast slide into the ocean forming the Ice Shelves and it is changes in these in particular that tell us what is going on.


There are a number of these ice shelves around Antarctica that are floating at their seaward end but are grounded at the inland end, and the collapse of these shelves would have severe consequences for the planet. The bigger ones are shown here, the Larsen being in the red box. To put it into perspective, the collapse of just the Ronne shelf would raise sea levels by about 5m, though there is a possibility about 1/3rd of it would not break easily in which case sea levels would be likely to ‘only’ rise by 3.5m or enough to put many of our major cities underwater.


The Larson ice shelf was always likely to be one of the first in trouble and was made of 3 sectors called Larsen A, B and C. Larsen A (the furthest from the pole and at the top of the photo) broke up in 1995, and B followed rapidly in 2002. But the B shelf is known to have been there for at least the last 12,000 years which takes us back to the last ice age so it must have been there for at least the last 110,000 years – or almost since modern man walked the Earth. But now it is gone.

Larsen C is still intact but the scientists warn it might go within the next decade.


The Wilkins ice shelf is closer to the pole than Larsen so the scientists didn’t expect it to be breaking up until about 2020, but we can see below that since 1990 it has retreated some 50 miles with a huge break in 2008. It is easy to ignore Antarctica as it is a long way away, but I have already argued the Poles are part of our early warning system and need to be taken seriously. The collapse of the Wilkins, though a relatively small ice shelf, is significant. As is the fact that almost everything to do with scientific predictions is happening faster than expected and certainly faster than the climate models predicted.


The Ronne and Filchner shelves There is another image we will look at which actually shows an enormous glacier calving (breaking off) the Ronne Ice Shelf and this one occurred in October 1998, but a similar size iceberg broke free in May 2000 and another broke off in January 2010. This iceberg is about 150km x 50km and is delightfully called A38.

Of course, as the ice shelves are fed by the ice streams, ice must anyway regularly break off, but these are historically enormous chunks of ice. In a stable environment the shelves would maintain a constant size which we can all see they are not doing.

The Ice shelf to the right of Berkner Island is the Filchner with the Ronne to the left. We can also see another glacier recently broken off above and to the right of A38 which is surrounded by the breaking ice from that shelf as we can see all the pieces fit together. Jones and Mueller have gone completely and Wordie and Prince Gustav almost. There is a long list of retreating glaciers with hardly any growing and those few are growing slowly.

The Arctic

As we have said, the Arctic ice sits on the ocean, but changes in this region are certain (a word used advisedly) to have huge implications for the planet and all humanity. The reason is not just the positive feedback (where less ice and more ocean causes more heat to be absorbed forcing the temperature higher still) but defrosting the permafrost will release very large amounts of both carbon dioxide and methane. Some bubbling of methane from the ocean from the continental shelf off northern Siberia was noticed two or three years ago, so a research ship was sent to investigate. They have estimated that 8M tons of methane is already being released every year just from there, but methane (CH4) is about 22 times more climate toxic than CO2.


It is also estimated that the permafrost contains twice as much carbon as our entire atmosphere and three times as much as all our forests. Bizarre isn’t it that the EU subsidises burning wood for energy and demands biofuel in our diesel. Most biofuel is being grown on virgin land where the forest has to be destroyed which releases huge amounts of carbon and which is pushing up the coming climate temperature. And this in turn will melt the arctic which will release vastly more greenhouse gas. And this isn’t difficult academically to understand. But what is happening to the Arctic Ice?

The really important information is not the area of ocean covered in summer but the total volume of that ice. It seems average ice thickness has reduced, but even the summer area is almost as low as it has ever been so the volume now may be the lowest ever. The area of summer ice is about 2 ½ m sq miles less than it used to be and the images below show arctic ice cover in the 3 years given. 2007 had THE lowest ever cover. It is probable this is impacting on our winter weather, and of course the changing recent wind direction to ex polar should be reducing arctic winter temperature.


Events are not limited to the Antarctic as Greenland is also losing ice and we look at an image of the Jakobshaven glacier below showing its retreat since 1851. It is on the 70° latitude line about half way up the west coast. Interestingly it altered very little between 1964 and 2001 since when it has retreated hugely. But this image is already well out of date as more has gone with a 1 mile retreat on one day on 7th July last year (2010).


But in the Paper ‘The Queensland Floods’ we considered during which periods the climate was warming through man-made (anthropogenic) climate change, and noted that for many years after about 1950 there should have been a period of cooling. Data from the melting ice around the planet does seem to confirm this.


The Helheim and Kangerdlugssuaq glaciers are close by Jakobshaven and between them they ‘drain’ about 16% of all the ice on Greenland so these are watched carefully. The Helheim has started retreating rapidly since 2001 and is now flowing almost twice as fast as it was. The Kangerdlugssuaq is retreating now and is already 100 metres thinner than it was.

The Petermann glacier is in the extreme north of Greenland on the Western corner and it has been retreating at an ever increasing rate with 25% breaking in one day on 5th August – guess when? Last year in 2010 the break being shown on the image here. This is the biggest ice break in Greenland since 1962. In fact all the Greenland glaciers now seem to be somewhere between in full retreat to starting to retreat. Just simple facts.

The Canadian Arctic

The Ellesmere Ice Shelf started disintegrating through the last century but stabilised around 1960 having broken into 6 different shelves, the biggest of which was Ward Hunt. But disintegration is well under way again since 2000 with significant events in 2002, 2008 and 2010 though the scientists will only say “disintegration is likely”. The Ayles Ice Shelf went completely in one go in 2005.

The North West Passage is the sea passage from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific round the top of Canada through the Canadian Arctic but has not been passable in living memory. Things are a changing again as ships did make the passage in both 2008 and 2009. As soon as it is generally free enough of ice to navigate, ships will be using it but that is an amazing marker to a seriously warming planet.

Mountain Glaciers


If I may be forgiven a personal experience, I took the photo here high in the Bolivian Andes in 1998. It is of Ancohuma glacier north east of La Paz, but the near neighbour called Chacaltaya which was healthy then – is already gone. Finished, and all the glaciers in that part of the Andes are disappearing fast. One problem is that 80m people depend on these glaciers for their water supply.


Generally nearly all the mountain glaciers in the world are retreating and the rate of melting nearly everywhere has increased substantially since around 1995. But just as the UK is currently suffering much colder winters, not every region of the world will gain temperature with a warming planet, so some glaciers could be expected to grow if only for a short time. Such events do not prove the planet isn’t warming. In effect if the climate is becoming more volatile it proves it is changing though the sceptics tend to disregard such matters. The map here shows the changes in the ‘mass balance’ of such glaciers which is the total amount of ice. Not good is it? And Chacaltaya is exactly in the big red circle in S America.


It would be astonishing if, when confronted with all this information, we didn’t at the very least give great credence to the notion that the planet is warming substantially, but I would go further and argue it almost proves it. At Climate Change – Is There an Early Warning System? you will find a White paper arguing that the Polar Regions should give us the climate reality before anywhere else. And surely it is so clear now that it is not the duty of the climate scientists to prove the climate is changing but for the sceptics to try to prove it isn’t. The consequences for mankind are truly dreadful and I will be publishing ever more work on this subject when I can, which will ultimately present a climate hypothesis. This will explain what is happening; what will happen, and why. So with such extreme downsides surely we must take a lot of action and overcome our difficulties to do so.

Of course we can wait and wait until the scientists come off the shelf and stand to be counted, but some research under way will take another 15 years to complete, and I promise we cannot wait that long. I personally live a long way above sea level – just over 200 metres – but we could check how many of those scientists live close to sea level. It would be interesting to find where the Tyndall Centre team in Norwich live as the outskirts of Norwich are just 2m above sea level.

There are two common themes through the story of all the ice breaks, disintegrations and melts. Firstly I am not aware of any event that has occurred after a scientifically predicted date as all those I have tracked have broken before. Secondly, every single report on climate says a lot of ice is going to melt – the only two questions are how much and by when? This Paper indicates at the very least that a lot is disappearing very fast right now.