Last Remaining Tropical Glaciers to Melt Away In a Decade

Ohio State University researchers blame the El Niño phenomenon for the increasing melt rate of the glaciers.
Donna Fuscaldo

With the melt rate of tropical glaciers located between the Himalayas and the Andes increasing exponentially, researchers predict the last remaining ones will be gone in a decade. 

Scientists at Ohio State University, led by Lonnie Thompson, a professor in the School of Earth Sciences and senior research scientist at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, said the tropical glaciers could melt even sooner because of climate change.  The work was published in journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


El Niño to blame for melting tropical glaciers 

"These will be the first to disappear; the others will certainly follow," said Thompson warning the glaciers in Papua, Indonesia is just the beginning of the melting of mountaintop glaciers. 

Thompson predicted the glaciers in Papua will disappear in the net ten years, likely during the next El Niño, a weather pattern that results in warmer tropical ocean water and atmospheric temperatures. The increased rate of melting occurred during a strong El Niño period in 2015 and 2016.

Glaciers in 2010
Papua, Indonesia glaciers in 2010.  Source: Lonnie Thompson

Thomspon and his team of researchers have been monitoring the glacier for almost a decade, drilling ice cores in 2010. The scientists said the glacier started melting 150 years ago but the pace quickened since 2010. 

To track the rate of melting, the scientists inserted a string of PVC pipe sectioning connected by a rope. When they measured the ice melting in 2015 they found the glacier was melting at a rate of about one meter per year.  They also measured the surface area of the glacier over the years and found it shrank 75% from 2010 to 2018.  

Glacier in 2019
Papua, Indonesia glacier in 2019. Source: Ana Maria Giraldo

"The glacier's melt rate is exponentially increasing," Thompson said in a press release highlighting the work. "It's similar to visiting a terminal cancer patient, and documenting the change in their body, but not being able to do anything about it."

Melting mountaintop glaciers contributor to sea-level rise

Melting glaciers around the globe is a huge contributor to the rising seal level with mountaintop glaciers accounting for a third to a half of the annual sea level rise, said Thompson.

"They are much more vulnerable to the rising temperatures because they're small and they're warmer - they're closer to the melting threshold," he said. "Ice is just a threshold system. It is perfectly happy at freezing temperatures or below, but everything changes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

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