Photo credit: NPS.gov
Glaciers are often a nebulous concept to many people. What exactly are they? It’s often simple to conjure an image of a glacier: a large, imposing sheet of ice spreading across a landscape. What’s challenging is defining exactly what glaciers are and how they form. How do they differentiate from, say, snow pack? The answer has to deal with the formation of glaciers and how they are shaped by their surroundings.
Glaciers can be separated into two broad categories: alpine and continental. Alpine glaciers form on the slopes of mountains, while continental glaciers form on vast expanses of flatter land, allowing for greater expansion in comparison to alpine glaciers. While they are separated by their particular areas of formation, they still form in largely the same way. During colder periods of climate in the Earth’s history, snow fell quite harshly, creating immense areas of snow pack. Over time, as more snow accreted, the snow inside the dense snow pack started to compound and solidify into thick ice under the increasing pressure. That’s why glaciers have distinct layers. As the snow compacts into ice, it creates visible layers, with fresh snow at the top, thick ice at the bottom, and granular firn in between (snow in the process of becoming ice).
Glaciers are also defined by their movement. They can move as they slide down mountains with the help of gravity, or shift on the continents as they slide on their watery bases. This combination of formation and movement helps to define what a glacier is.
While it’s interesting to know what glaciers are, it’s also often unclear how they are important. Not only do glaciers hold a large percent of the Earth’s fresh water, they are also vital to global processes. Glaciers help stabilize colder temperatures in the poles and on mountains while providing a habitat for many organisms. They also hold water that would otherwise fill the Earth’s oceans if they melted. One of the most important roles of glaciers is their role as a status marker for the Earth’s climate. Scientists often look to glaciers around the world to study past and present climate, as well as to gauge possible effects of climate change in the future.
It’s important to understand the makeup and formation of glaciers because of their importance to Earth’s climate and topography. Their persistent and pervasive nature make them excellent gauges of climate change that help in understanding its impact on the planet. Even without their important climatological and ecological impacts, glaciers are still beautiful, natural structures.
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© 2020 Weather Forecaster Cole Bristow
Global Warming. Climate Change. Climate Crisis.
You’ve probably heard at least one of these terms in the news within the past few years. Of course, this can lead to confusion. Each of these are referring to the same phenomenon of human-caused changes in Earth’s climate. However, they each refer to a different aspect of human-caused climate change. Let’s break each term down a little.
“Global Warming” was one of - if not the - first term to be publicized. When scientists first observed changes in Earth’s climate and attributed them to fossil fuel emissions, the most robust evidence for the change were rapidly increasing global average temperatures. The term “global warming” was coined to reflect this large-scale temperature increase.
However, as technology advanced, more observations were able to be recorded, and we were able to study past changes in the Earth system. Scientists learned that rising sea levels, melting ice caps, warming oceans, and other changes could be linked to fossil fuel emissions and global warming. Scientists also discovered that some areas of the planet were projected to cool under an anthropogenically altered climate. Therefore, the term “climate change” was coined to better reflect the diverse changes in Earth’s systems.
As a problem caused by human actions, climate change can thus be solved by human actions. However, a number of factors have resulted in a lack of practical solutions and low motivation to implement even small solutions. In recent years, as the planet has seen a number of climate-related disasters – sunny day flooding, strong and stalling hurricanes, and wildfires, to name a few – the term “climate crisis” was coined with the intent to help inform world citizens about the scale of climate change related damage, and the repercussions of inaction.
One new term that has been making the rounds lately is “climate disruption”. This is a unique term as it captures many of the facets of the climate change issue in one term. “Disruption” implies that human activity has knocked the climate system off of its typical equilibrium – which it has. It also captures the negative results of anthropogenic climate change. Keep an eye out for this term in the near future! And remember, one of the best things you can do to combat climate disruption is to talk about it. No matter which term you use, raising awareness of the issue will also raise concern and, hopefully, action.
©2020 Meteorologist Margaret Orr
For more information about our changing climate, visit https://www.globalweatherclimatecenter.com/climate-topics