Our Frozen Cryosphere Is Melting

A NextGen Blog post by Michelle O’BrienUniversity of North Carolina Wilmington

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts students’ essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Michelle O’Brien is a student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, majoring in Environmental Science with a concentration in Conservation Biology. This blog post follows the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released earlier this week, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. The report states, “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.” The Secretary-General for the United Nations called the report, ‘Code Red for Humanity.”

Alterations and changes to numerous earth systems, including the rise in average global temperature, were further substantiated by this week’s Aug 9 IPCC report on worldwide documentation in countless regions of the planet. But nowhere on earth is warming faster than the Arctic regions. This area is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet; and predictions suggest the rate of warming will precipitously accelerate over the next century.[mfn]Environmental Protection Agency[/mfn] The northernmost region of the Earth is warming faster than its counterpart in Antarctica. This is due to weaker polar amplification (rise in global temperatures effecting polar regions before the rest of the planet); a weaker albedo rate; and more efficient heat uptake in Antarctica than in the Arctic. 

Due to these rapid changes in the cryosphere [earth’s frozen lands], scientists and climate researchers are collecting critical data to observe and predict how losses and changes to the cryosphere will impact planetary stability. Studying potential and likely outcomes of a changing and shrinking cryosphere is important for mitigating climate change threats and preparing for future impacts of a rapidly changing environment.

Courtesy of World Meteorological Organization

What is the Cryosphere?

The cryosphere is a dynamic part of the hydrosphere (the system responsible for earth’s water cycle). The cryosphere, containing all of earth’s frozen surface and groundwater, makes up 68.7% of all freshwater on the planet.[mfn]United States Geological Survey[/mfn] and includes seasonal snow cover, sea ice, lake and river ice, ice sheets, permafrost, mountain glaciers and small ice caps.[mfn]U.S Department of Commerce[/mfn] The cryosphere aids in stabilizing our planet’s average global temperature by reflecting large amounts of energy back into the atmosphere.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, snow and ice reflect 80% of incoming sunlight back into the atmosphere.[mfn]National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration[/mfn] The term scientists use for measuring the reflective ability of various surfaces is referred to as the albedo rate and is defined by the percentage of solar radiation reflected into space by a certain object or surface. This makes the cryosphere a crucial aspect in regulating the amount of energy and heat absorbed by our planet.[mfn]The European Space Agency[/mfn] As the size of polar ice sheets, snow cover and other high albedo surfaces shrink, significantly less energy is reflected into the atmosphere, causing an acceleration of heat flux.[mfn]University of Chicago[/mfn] The more energy absorbed by our planet, the hotter the earth becomes and the faster our glaciers will melt.

The results of warming polar regions affect everyone and every species on the planet. Scientists have linked a warming planet to an increase in the rate of ocean acidification, floods, wildfires, loss of species, sea level rise and the likelihood of reaching critical tipping points.[mfn]European Environmental Agency[/mfn] Today’s IPCC report says earth is rapidly approaching numerous irreversible tipping points, including the melting of the Greenland and Arctic ice sheets, the loss of the boreal and Amazon rainforests, instability of the West Antarctica ice sheet, weaker ocean circulation patterns, dying of coral reefs, permafrost thawing and other concerning accelerated changes.[mfn]Yale Environment 360[/mfn] According to the European Geosciences Union, 28 trillion tons of ice were lost between 1994 and 2017, showing a 57% increase is the rate of ice loss since the 1990’s.[mfn]European Geosciences Union[/mfn] The rate at which the polar regions are melting is occurring faster than scientists previously predicted. The World Economic Forum states that, “Researchers’ analysis demonstrates these changes are moving along at a much faster pace than expected.”[mfn]World Economic Forum[/mfn]

Courtesy of the European Space Agency

Antarctica and Greenland, the planet’s two remaining polar ice sheets, make up the largest mass of the cryosphere.[mfn]National Snow and Ice Data Center[/mfn] According to the “National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Arctic Program,” the Greenland Ice Sheet is losing 267 billion tons of ice per year, and Artic snow cover is at its lowest point in 53 years.[mfn]National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration Arctic Program[/mfn] The Greenland Ice Sheet is also currently contributing 0.7 mm per year to sea-level rise.[mfn]National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration Arctic Program[/mfn] To accurately study changes occurring to earth’s climate and atmosphere, scientists are now examining past and present cryosphere levels and comparing this data with long-term global average temperatures.

According to NASA scientists, if all the planet’s glaciers and ice sheets melt, sea level would rise by 195 feet (60 meters) by the end of the century.[mfn]National Atmospheric Space Administration[/mfn] The World Wildlife Fund claims that, “unprecedented melting of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets and their glaciers is now the biggest contributor to global sea-level rise that will impact hundreds of millions of people,” and will likely generate an extensive amount of climate refugees.[mfn]World Wildlife Fund[/mfn] Loss of sea ice exposes the oceans surrounding polar regions to direct sunlight, where larger amounts of energy are absorbed than if ice was still covering significantly more of the surface area, representing an acceleration of the process of thermal expansion.[mfn]Aspen Global Change Institute[/mfn] When warm air interacts with ice sheets, it increases their melting rate and creates melting ponds. In turn, that change exasperates the rate of calving and creates a seamless and endless cycle of melting.

Another interesting component of the cryosphere is permafrost, which comprises all of the earth’s frozen groundwater. Thawing permafrost has consequences for nearby water quality, as it deposits large amounts of carbon and nitrogen into aquatic ecosystems and neighboring streams.[mfn]National Parks Service[/mfn] Permafrost contains vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane that have been stored underground for thousands of years. Scientist are concerned that thawing permafrost will release large reserves of greenhouse gasses, subsequently further increasing the rate of global warming events.  According to the “NOAA Arctic Program,” thawing Arctic permafrost may be releasing 300-600 million tons of carbon each year.[mfn]National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration Arctic Program[/mfn] Permafrost also contains a plethora of unknown viruses that could potentially be released into the atmosphere as the landscape melts. The European Surfrider Foundation estimates permafrost contains 17,000 billion tons of carbon and references the thawing of permafrost as “Pandora’s box.” This is due to the superfluity of unknown bacteria that will be released as permafrost thaws.[mfn]Surfrider Foundation Europe[/mfn]

Melting Mountain Glaciers

Totaling just over 20% of the world’s population,1.9 billion people rely on mountain glaciers for their main source of drinking water.[mfn]The Conversation[/mfn] These regions also rely on glaciers and snow ice for both irrigation and power generation. As numerous regions are experiencing the effects of a shrinking cryosphere, the future of water in these areas may become scant. Peru relies on the Andes Mountains for a large portion of their water supply; and there is recent concern on a near-future lack of available freshwater from the High Andes glaciers.[mfn]Columbia Climate School[/mfn] The Yanamarey Glacier is expected to disappear in half a century, while others including the Chacaltaya and Bolivia glaciers could disappear in just ten years.[mfn]Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute[/mfn] Glaciers in the United States are experiencing similar trends. In 1850, Montana’s Glacier National Park had 150 glaciers; but today only 25 glaciers remain. Scientists predict the park will be glacier-free by 2030.[mfn]National Aeronautic Space Administration[/mfn] Glaciers in Alaska are no different, according to “NASA Earth Observatory.” The Columbia Glacier is the fastest retreating glacier in the world.[mfn]National Aeronautic Space Administration[/mfn]

Before and after in Glacier National Park, MT

These drastic changes to the cryosphere will contribute significantly to the loss of stream discharge and disrupt natural stream flows. According to a statement in a “National Geographic” article, the consequences of glacier loss will be significant: “If most of it disappears, there will be extreme consequences for most of these regions, the stream flow will change, the timing of peak stream flow will change, and the temperature of streams will change.” There is significant evidence that “peak water” from glacial melt has already passed the point of steady and stable ice flow.[mfn]Scientific American[/mfn]


Our polar ice sheets are melting; sea level is rising; and our planet is rapidly warming. Although many factors attribute to the changing climate, it is evident that the melting of our cryosphere is a clear result of a warming planet caused by the burning of fossil fuels over the past century. This should be taken as a warning sign for future stability of our planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean Cryosphere shows negative trends in all areas of the cryosphere, and their latest report further confirms the irrefutable data of our warming planet.[mfn]Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[/mfn] Scientists will continue to monitor the changes to Earth’s cryosphere using satellite imagery and on-the-ground data to observe what the foreseeable future holds.


Aspen Global Change Institute. “The Cryosphere.” Accessed July 26, 2021, by MO. https://www.agci.org/earth-systems/cryosphere

Columbia Climate School, State of the Planet. “Vanishing Glaciers: The Future of Water in Perus High Andes. Jeremy Hinsdale, June 12, 2018. Accessed July 27, 2021, by MO. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2018/06/12/vanishing-glaciers-future-water-perus-high-andes/

European Environmental Agency. “Climate change and water- Warmer oceans, flooding and droughts.” Accessed on July 21, 2021. https://www.eea.europa.eu/signals/signals-2018-content-list/articles/climate-change-and-water-2014

European Geosciences Union. “Review article: Earth’s ice imbalance.” August 12, 2020. Accessed July 22, 2021, by MO.  https://tc.copernicus.org/articles/15/233/2021/

Environmental Protection Agency. “Climate Change Indicators: U.S and Global Temperature.” EPA, 2021. Accessed July 16, 2021, by MO. https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-us-and-global-temperature

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Observations: Cryosphere.” IPCC. Retrieved August 4, 2021, by MO. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WG1AR5_Chapter04_FINAL.pdf

Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute. “Global Disappearance of Tropical Mountain Glaciers: Observations, Causes, and Challenges. Accessed July 30, 2021, by MO.  https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3263/9/5/196/htm

National Aeronautic Space Administration, Earth Observatory. “World of Change: Columbia Glacier, Alaska.” NASA. Retrieved August 9, 2021, by MO.  https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/ColumbiaGlacier

National Atmospheric Space Administration. “Understanding Sea Level.” Accessed July 23, 2021, by MO. https://sealevel.nasa.gov/understanding-sea-level/global-sea-level/ice-melt

National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration U.S Department of Commerce. “What is the cryosphere?” Accessed July 17, 2021, by MO. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/cryosphere.html

National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration Arctic Program. “Arctic Report Card: Update for 2019.” NOAA. Retrieved August 9, 2021, by MO. https://arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card/Report-Card-2019

National Parks Service. “Potential Effects of Permafrost Thaw on Arctic River Ecosystems.” NPS. Retrieved August 9, 2021, by MO. https://www.nps.gov/articles/aps-16-1-10.htm

National Snow and Ice Data Center. Quick Facts on Ice Sheets. Accessed August 4, 2021, by MO. https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/quickfacts/icesheets.html

Scientific American. “For Peru’s Rio Santa, has “Peak Water” Already Passed?” Lauren Morello, December 21, 2011. Accessed August 2, 2021, by MO. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/peru-rio-santa-has-peak-water-past/

Surfrider Foundation Europe. “Permafrost: A Modern Day Pandora’s Box: https://surfrider.eu/en/learn/blog/permafrost-modern-day-pandoras-box-121402206487.html

The Conversation. “The world’s mountain ‘water towers’ are melting, putting 1.9 billion people at risk.” Bethan Davies, 20219. Accessed July 26, 2021, by MO. https://theconversation.com/the-worlds-mountain-water-towers-are-melting-putting-1-9-billion-people-at-risk-128501

The European Space Agency. “Our World is losing ice at a record rate.” ESA Jan 25, 2021. Accessed July 20, 2021, by MO

University of Chicago. “The Energy Budget of Glaciers.” Accessed July 18, 2021, by MO. http://geosci.uchicago.edu/~rtp1/glaciers/EnergyBudget.html

United States Geological Survey. “Ice, Snow, and Glaciers and the Water Cycle.” Accessed July 17, 2021, by MO. https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/ice-snow-and-glaciers-and-water-cycle?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects

World Wildlife Fund. “One billion people threatened by climate change risks to oceans, polar and mountain regions, UN report warns.” Accessed July 23, 2021, by MO. https://arcticwwf.org/newsroom/news/one-billion-people-threatened-by-climate-change-risks-to-oceans-polar-and-mountain-regions-un-report-warns/

World Economic Forum. “Global warming: Scientists ‘stunned’ by how much ice we’ve lost.” Erikson, August 24, 2020. Retrieved August 4, 2021, by MO. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/08/arctic-sea-ice-global-warming-climate-change-predictions/

Yale Environment 360. “As Climate Change Worsens, A Cascade of Tipping Points Looms.” December 5, 2019. Retrieved August 8, 2021, by MO. https://e360.yale.edu/features/as-climate-changes-worsens-a-cascade-of-tipping-points-looms

One thought on “Our Frozen Cryosphere Is Melting

  1. This is such an important need for action , not just a ‘topic ‘ for discussion for anyone. This author is in her 20s, I’m in my 80s, I never in my younger years thought we’d be putting our lives/planet in such jeopardy .The lagging behind attitude of our elected politicians, industry-leading forces are criminal . How do we wake people up?

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