Glaciers in Yosemite and Africa will disappear by 2050, U.N. warns

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PARIS – Glaciers in at least one-third of World Heritage sites that hold them, including Yosemite National Park, will disappear by mid-century even if emissions are curbed, an Educational Institute has warned, United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization in a new report on Thursday.

Even if global warming is limited to just 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), which now seems unlikely, all the glaciers in Yosemite and the ice patches in Yellowstone National Park, as well with the few glaciers left in Africa, are being lost.

Other glaciers can only be saved if greenhouse gas emissions are “substantially cut” and global warming is capped at 1.5 degrees Celsius, Paris-based UNESCO warned in its report.

The world’s melting glaciers are giving up their secrets too quickly

About 50 of the organization’s more than 1,150 World Heritage sites have glaciers, which together make up almost a tenth of the world’s glaciated area.

Almost 19,000 glaciers located in heritage sites lose more than 60 billion tonnes of ice per year, equivalent to the annual water use of Spain and France combined, and accounts for approx. 5 percent of the global rise in sea level, says UNESCO.

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“Glaciers are retreating at a rapid rate around the world,” said Tales Carvalho Resende, a hydrology expert with UNESCO.

The institute described a “warming cycle” in which melting glaciers cause the appearance of darker surfaces, which then absorb even more heat and accelerate ice retreat.

Apart from drastic cuts in emissions, the UNESCO report calls for better monitoring of glaciers and the use of early warning mechanisms to respond to natural disasters, including floods caused by bursting glacial lakes. Such floods have already cost thousands of lives and may have partly fueled Pakistan’s disastrous floods this year.

Although there have been some local efforts to reduce melting rates – for example, by covering the ice with blankets – Carvalho Resende warned that scaling up those experiments “could be very challenging, because of costs but also because most glaciers are very difficult to reach.”

Throughout history, glaciers have grown during very cold periods and shrunk when those stretches ended. The world’s last very cold period ended over 10,000 years ago, and further natural melting was expected in Europe after the last “Little Ice Age” ended in the 19th century.

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But as carbon dioxide emissions increased over the last century, human factors began to accelerate what was expected to be a gradual natural retreat. In Switzerland, glaciers lost a record 6 percent of their volume this year alone.

Although the additional melting has to some extent balanced other effects of climate change – for example, preventing rivers from drying up despite heat waves – it is quickly reaching a critical threshold, according to UNESCO.

In the Forcle Glacier in Switzerland, scientists are able to discover ancient artefacts where the land was once frozen over. (Video: Rick Noack/The Washington Post)

In its report, the organization writes that it is possible that the peak in meltwater has already been transferred to many smaller glaciers, where the water is now starting to decrease.

If the trend continues, the organization warned, “little to no baseflow will be available during the drier periods.”

The changes are expected to have major implications for agriculture, biodiversity and urban life. “Glaciers are essential sources of life on Earth,” UNESCO wrote.

“They provide water resources to at least half of humanity,” said Carvalho Resende, who warned that the cultural losses would also be enormous.

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Around the world, global warming is exposing ancient artifacts faster than archaeologists can save them.

“Some of these glaciers are sacred places, which are really important to indigenous people and local communities,” he said.

UNESCO cited the example of the centuries-old Snow Star Festival in the Peruvian Andes, which has already been affected by ice loss. Spiritual leaders once shared blocks of glacier ice with pilgrims, but the practice stopped when locals noticed the rapid retreat in recent years.

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Small glaciers at low or medium altitude will be the first to disappear. UNESCO said that rates of ice loss in small glaciated areas “more than doubled between the early 2000s and the late 2010s.”

This corresponds to observations by researchers who have studied the retreat of glaciers. Matthias Huss, a European glaciologist, said scientists had seen “very strong melting in the last two decades” in Switzerland.

At the same time, there are fewer and fewer places that are cold enough for glaciers to actually grow. “Nowadays, the limit where glaciers can still form new ice is around 3,000 metres. [about 9,840 feet]”he said, explaining that that height has risen by several hundred meters in recent decades.

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