Some Cold Hard Facts about the Retreat of Mountain Glaciers

(Lexington Minuteman – January 19, 2006)

Should those of us in the Northeast United States care about whether mountain glaciers worldwide are disappearing at an astonishing speed? Does the absence of snows on the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro within twenty years matter to us? Does the disappearance of the glaciers in Glacier National Park by mid century matter to us? Although we don’t have glacial mountains in these parts, we are not immune to the significance of melting ice caps.

One thing we humans too often forget is that every action is bound to have a corresponding reaction…or two, or more. Sure we know that climate change has happened throughout earth’s history all by itself, but when we homo sapiens fan the flames—pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere like there was no tomorrow—well nature can’t help but respond.

With global temperatures averaging about 1.2 warmer during the 20th century, and increasing at an alarming rate, something’s gotta give. Among those somethings are melting polar ice caps threatening the survival of native Eskimo and Inuit cultures not to mention polar bears and Arctic wildlife in general; as well as the complete disappearance of the world’s mountain glaciers that have existed for millennia. All of this melting is resulting in rising sea levels and portends serious threats to coastal communities and beyond. To add insult to injury, this melt water that was once ice is now heating up in the form of increasing deep ocean temperatures, helping to raise overall climatic temperatures.

For vast regions of the earth, including much of the western United States, mountain snow packs serve as enormous water towers, storing water as it accumulates during the winter, and metering it out over the spring and summer, nurturing plants and animals, and recharging surface water and groundwater supplies vital to vast segments of the world’s population. In the absence of adequate snow pack, regional ecologies and economies will suffer ever increasing detrimental impacts. Water and global warming are inextricably linked, and as we are seeing more and more lately, water is sometimes too much and sometimes too little. One thing for sure, global warming and water quality and quantity will be the defining issues of this millennium.

On January 22, at 7:30 p.m. at Cary Hall, the Global Warming Action Committee of Lexington will present Dr. Mark Bowen, local scientist, science writer, experienced high altitude mountain climber, and author of the recently published book, Thin Ice – Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World’s Highest Mountains. Dr. Bowen will discuss the implications of worldwide rapid glacial melting based on his own extensive personal experiences accompanying expeditions that have been collecting ice core samples from high altitude glaciers around the world in an effort to more fully understand the earth’s climate change history.

Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature wrote in his recent New York Times review of Bowen’s book: “It is the best compact history of the science of global warming I have read.” The book centers on the work of Ohio State University scientist Lonnie Thompson. According to McKibben, Thompson is the “preeminent explorer of tropical and semitropical glaciers today, and the principal decoder of the secrets trapped in their ice.”

The handwriting is on the wall—or rather, in the ice core borings. What we as humans do from this day forward will determine to what degree climatic changes can be mitigated.

Lonnie Thompson has tenaciously mapped the course of past climate change by extracting ice borings from remote high altitude glacier fields around the world. Like tree rings, these borings tell a compelling story that dates back 750,000 years. What we humans do with this growing body of knowledge is going to be of critical import to our own future and the future of our children. Let us hope that at last we have a teachable moment. (Visit to see a U.S. Geological Survey simulation of a dying glacier, Modeled Climate-Induced Glacier Change in Glacier National Park, 1850-2100.)

Do you know: Which new buildings in Lexington meet LEEDS standards and why are LEEDS standards important in meeting the challenge of climate change? Read our next column for the answer.

Brought to you by Lexington Global Warming Action Coalition. Contact us at