Glaciers

Ice plays an important role in global environmental cycles. Knowledge about changes in the thickness of the ice is important in efforts to understand more about climate change in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Kronebreen in Kongsfjorden calving.Kronebreen in Kongsfjorden calving. Photo: Geir Wing Gabrielsen / Norwegian Polar Institute

A glacier's mass balance could be compared to a bank account, where the balance is the result of deposits and withdrawals. Deposits – the accumulation on a glacier or ice sheet – come in the form of snow. If all the ice in Antarctica were to melt, it would raise the global sea level by 65 metres. Changes in total ice volume are therefore of great interest. An important aspect of glaciological research is to study changes in accumulation, as this may have implications for the total mass balance in Antarctica. Mass balance is an overall climate signal, influenced mainly by winter precipitation and summer temperatures.

A warmer climate in the polar regions will most likely bring more precipitation, which means that snowfall and snow cover – which translate to accumulation on glaciers – would play an increasingly important role. The mass balance of glaciers, including those in Svalbard and Greenland, is particularly interesting, because when they melt they influence not only sea level, but also living conditions, salinity and temperature in the ocean. Melting of these glaciers may even influence ocean currents.

High-altitude glaciers all around the world are sensitive to climate change. The effects of global warming – melting glaciers and thawing permafrost – can be seen in many of the world's mountainous regions. Changes in these glaciers will have major social and economic impact on people's lives. When the glaciers melt, there may be perturbing effects on water supply, hydroelectric power and tourism in the areas affected.

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