JAKARTA, Indonesia – From Germany’s southern border to the highest peaks in Africa, glaciers have served as lucrative tourist attractions, natural climate archives for scientists, and beacons of belief for indigenous groups.
With the rapid melting of many glaciers due to climate change, the disappearance of the ice caps will certainly be a blow to the countries and communities that have depended on them for generations – to generate electricity, attract visitors and maintain ancient traditions. spiritual.
The masses of ice that have formed over millennia from compacted snow have been melting since the Industrial Revolution, a process that has accelerated in recent years.
In Africa, the retreat is visible at the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the jagged Rwenzori mountains soar into the sky above a jungle. The peaks were once home to more than 40 glaciers. Less than half were left in 2005. And the melting continues. Experts believe the last of the mountain glaciers could disappear within 20 years.
The disappearance is causing problems for landlocked Uganda, which derives almost half of its electricity from hydropower, including power stations that rely on the flow of water from the Rwenzori glaciers.
âThis hydroelectric power works much better with smoother flows than it does with peaks and valleys,â said Richard Taylor, professor of hydrogeology at University College London.
A continent further, on the southern edge of the German border with Austria, only 124 acres of ice remain on five glaciers combined. Experts estimate that this is 88% less than what existed around 1850 and predict that the remaining glaciers will melt in 10 to 15 years.
This is bad news for a tourism industry that relies on glaciers, said Christoph Mayer, senior scientist in geodesy and glaciology at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Munich.
âAt the moment, tourist agencies can advertise: ‘You can visit some kind of highest mountain in Germany with glaciers’. You can walk on glaciers, âMayer said. âThe people who live around these regions really make a living from tourism.
The same problem arises in Tanzania, where experts estimate that Mount Kilimanjaro – Africa’s tallest mountain and one of the country’s main tourist attractions – has lost around 90% of its glacial ice due to melting and sublimation, a process in which solid ice passes directly to vaporize without first becoming liquid. Travel and tourism accounted for 10.7% of the country’s gross domestic product in 2019.
There are also intangible losses for many indigenous communities who reside near glaciers, said Rainer Prinz, a glaciologist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria.
In the story of the local people, âThe ice in the mountains is the seat of god. It has a very spiritual meaning, âhe said, speaking of communities near Mount Kilimanjaro. âLosing the glaciers there would also have an impact on spiritual life, I think. “
The layers of ice that make up a glacier can be tens of thousands of years old and contain information from year to year about past climatic conditions, including atmospheric composition, temperature variations, and the types of vegetation that were present. . Researchers take long, tube-shaped ice cores from glaciers to “read” these layers.
During a 2010 research trip to the Carstensz Glacier in Indonesia’s West Papua province, oceanographer Dwi Raden Susanto was thrilled to be part of a team that collected a core from distant glaciers. But once the sample was taken, Susanto said, scientists quickly realized that the rapid decline of the ice had allowed them to obtain records dating only to the 1960s.
âIt’s sad because it’s not only a loss of local or national heritage for Indonesia, but it’s also a loss of climate heritage for the world,â Susanto said.
As glaciers disappear, experts say ecosystems will also begin to change – something already under study at Venezuela’s Humboldt Glacier, which could disappear within two decades.
Experts warn that the fate of small glaciers is a warning for bigger ones.
For example, while many of the world’s small glaciers no longer serve as the primary source of fresh water for countries, some larger glaciers do, such as Peru, which lost nearly 30% of its ice mass between 2000 and 2016, according to Lauren Vargo, a researcher at the Antarctic Research Center in Wellington, New Zealand.
âThese communities are much more dependent on glaciers for water for their communities,â Vargo said.
Increased melting will also lead to rising seas and changes in weather conditions – something that will certainly affect society globally, Mayer said.
“The disappearance of these little glaciers is really a harbinger of what is to come in the future,” he said. It “should make you realize that something is going on that isn’t just peanuts.”