Charleston doesn’t have any glaciers, but ice melting hundreds or thousands of miles away can have a big impact here in the form of rising sea levels. Climate change seems to be making that problem even more urgent.
A study released this week of 19,000 glaciers worldwide that tracked measurements over the past several decades found that ice is melting almost everywhere, and it’s generally happening faster than we previously thought.
The numbers are alarming.
The world loses an incredible 369 billion tons of glacial ice each year. That’s a rate 18 percent faster than the most recent comparable study found in 2013. And it’s at least five times faster than measurements recorded half a century ago.
Melting ice isn’t the only factor involved in sea level increases — heat also causes water to expand, and the Earth’s oceans absorb a tremendous and growing amount of heat — but this most recent study suggests that glacial melt accounts for as much as 30 percent of the yearly rise of global oceans.
Obviously, this is of particular concern in places like Antarctica and Greenland that are covered by large, thick sheets of land-based ice. If too much of that ice was to melt and flow into the ocean, it would be catastrophic for countless low-lying cities like Charleston.
But there are also glaciers all over the planet — even near the otherwise steamy equator in high enough elevations — and they’re mostly melting too. That’s likely to have different but no less alarming consequences, such as drying up drinking water and agricultural irrigation supplies.
If the loss of ice continues at current rates, several mountain ranges are likely to lose their glaciers entirely by the end of the century, and the impacts of melting elsewhere are likely to continue indefinitely.
Again, this is not just a problem for people who live near glaciers. It’s a problem for people in communities far downstream from rivers that swell with seasonal runoff. It’s a problem for people who live near the coast.
Charleston is preparing multiple projects totaling at least $2 billion to address known flooding problems and prepare for future sea level rise. Funding and building those fixes will be one of the larger challenges the city has so far faced in its long history.
But without global action alongside individual and community efforts to prevent the worst climate change scenarios and mitigate the impacts of global warming, those preparations are not likely to be nearly sufficient.