UN: A third of the world's glaciers 'will disappear' by 2050, including all of Yellowstone and Yosemite

UN: A third of the world's glaciers 'will disappear' by 2050, including all of Yellowstone and Yosemite
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World

Glaciers in one-third of the 50 World Heritage sites where they are found are set to disappear by 2050 even if planet-heating emissions are curbed, the United Nations warned in a report published Thursday.

Extant greenhouse gas pollution has locked in so much global warming that even if temperature rise is limited to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels—a goal the U.N. said last week is unattainable without "urgent system-wide transformation"—many of the world's most prized glaciers, including those in Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks in the U.S. as well as in Tanzania's Kilimanjaro National Park, "will disappear" by mid-century, according to the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Two-thirds of World Heritage site glaciers can be preserved "if emissions are drastically cut" and warming is capped at 1.5°C, says the study, prepared in partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Existing climate targets and policies are so weak that the planet is currently projected to be 2.1 to 2.9°C hotter by 2100.

"This report is a call to action," UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement. "Only a rapid reduction in our CO2 emissions levels can save glaciers and the exceptional biodiversity that depends on them."

Referring to the U.N. climate summit in Egypt that starts on Sunday, Azoulay said: "COP27 will have a crucial role to help find solutions to this issue. UNESCO is determined to support states in pursuing this goal."

As the report explains:

Around 18,600 glaciers have been identified in 50 World Heritage sites. These glaciers span an area of about 66,000 km², representing almost 10% of the Earth's glacierized area. Research studies performed with satellite data highlight that these glaciers have been retreating at an accelerating rate since 2000 [due to CO2 emissions, which are warming temperatures]. World Heritage glaciers lose on average some 58 billion tonnes of ice every year—equivalent to the total annual volume of water consumed in France and Spain together—and contribute to almost 5% of global observed sea-level rise.

"Glaciers are crucial sources of life on Earth," says the report.

In addition to providing "ecosystem services such as sediment sinks, freshwater reservoirs, and habitats for biodiversity," glaciers "provide vital water resources to half of humanity for domestic use, agriculture, and hydropower. They are also sacred places for many local communities and attract millions of tourists globally."

IUCN Director-General Bruno Oberle warned that "when glaciers melt rapidly, millions of people face water scarcity and the increased risk of natural disasters such as flooding, and millions more may be displaced by the resulting rise in sea levels."

Alluding to a positive feedback loop that is intensifying the climate emergency, the report notes that "as more ice melts, more darker surfaces will appear, leading to more heat being absorbed, hence amplifying the cycle of warming."

UNESCO shared examples of endangered glaciers by region.

Africa
  • According to available data, glaciers in all World Heritage sites in Africa will very likely be gone by 2050, including Kilimanjaro National Park and Mount Kenya.
Asia
  • Glaciers in Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas (China) have suffered the highest mass loss relative to 2000 (57.2%) and also contain the fastest melting glacier on the list.
  • Glaciers in Western Tien-Shan (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan) have shrunk by 27% since 2000.
Europe
  • Glaciers in Pyrenees Mont Perdu (France, Spain) are very likely to disappear by 2050.
  • Glaciers in The Dolomites (Italy) are very likely to disappear by 2050.
Latin America
  • Glaciers in Los Alerces National Park (Argentina) have endured the second-highest mass loss relative to 2000 (45.6%).
  • Glaciers in Huascaran National Park (Peru) have shrunk by 15% since 2000.
North America
  • Glaciers in Yellowstone National Park (United States of America) are very likely to disappear by 2050.
  • Glaciers in Yosemite National Park (United States of America) are very likely to disappear by 2050.
  • Glaciers in Waterton Glacier International Peace Park (Canada, United States of America) have lost 26.5% of their volume in 20 years.
Oceania
  • Glaciers in Te Wahipounamu - South West New Zealand (New Zealand) have lost almost 20% of their volume since 2000.

The report makes clear that "the most important protective measure to counteract substantial glacier retreat worldwide" is to drastically slash greenhouse gas pollution.

Under a "business-as-usual emissions scenario," warn the authors, roughly half of World Heritage site glaciers "could almost entirely disappear by 2100."

According to UNESCO and IUCN: "At site level, adaptative measures need to be strengthened to respond to inevitable glacier changes in the near future. These include identifying knowledge gaps and improving monitoring networks, designing and implementing early warning and disaster risk reduction measures, making glaciers a focus of targeted policy, and promoting knowledge exchange, stakeholder engagement, and communication."

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