Researchers Warn of Imminent 'Death Spiral' for Rapidly Melting Alaska Ice Field

  1. A recent study published in the journal Nature Communications has shown that the Juneau ice field in Alaska, home to over 1,000 glaciers, is melting at an accelerated rate and could reach a critical tipping point much sooner than initially predicted.

  2. The research revealed that the rate of ice loss from the Juneau ice field has significantly increased after 2005, with a five-fold increase in area shrinkage from 2015 to 2019 compared to the years 1979 to 1990. The study also reported a doubling of glacier volume loss after 2010, which had remained stable from 1770 to 1979.

  3. According to the study, thinning has become extensive across the icefield plateau since 2005, leading to glacier recession and fragmentation. As the thinning continues, a balance-elevation feedback mechanism might prevent future glacier growth and possibly push the glaciers beyond a point of no return.

  4. Study lead author Bethan Davies, a glaciologist at Newcastle University in England, expressed concern over the accelerated melting, stating it is particularly worrisome for Alaskan icefields that, due to their flat nature, can neither retreat to higher elevations nor find a new equilibrium.

  5. Study co-author Mauri Pelto from Nichols College in Massachusetts emphasized that the Juneau ice field is losing ice at a rate of approximately 50,000 gallons per second, with dramatic changes observable in yearly visits to the area. Moreover, he noted that between 2005 and 2019, the study found that 64 glaciers disappeared, a significant rise from the four glaciers lost between 1948 and 2005.

  6. Acknowledging the gravity of the situation, Alaska climatologist Brian Brettschneider stressed the concern over the acceleration, stating it could trigger a "death spiral" for the thinning icefield.

  7. It’s worth noting that glacier melting is not exclusive to the Juneau ice field in Alaska. Glaciers worldwide, such as those in Greenland, Switzerland, Africa, and the Himalayas, are melting at alarming rates. In 2022, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization warned that glaciers in one-third of the 50 UNESCO World Heritage sites with glaciers could disappear by 2050 if planetary-heating emissions are not significantly reduced.

  8. Another research last year by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Alaska suggested that even if humanity manages to limit planetary heating to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures—the more ambitious target of the Paris agreement—half of Earth’s glaciers are expected to vanish by the end of the century.

  9. As glaciers rapidly melt, it poses immense challenges to ecosystems, water sources, and coastal regions, highlighting the urgent need for concerted global efforts in mitigating climate change.

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