39. “An Adaptive Approach”: The Regional Ramifications of Glacial Melting

Author: Emma Nault, First Year

I’m writing to you, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), not to bring attention to what you are already well aware of concerning the daily impact of humans’ harmful CO2 and fossil fuel emissions, but rather one of the most serious side-effects: glacial melting and its consequences on local populations’ resources. In its current context, the term global warming was first introduced to the general public in 1975 by Wally Broecker’s “Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” in Science journal. This new terminology for a rise in global surface temperature later became popularized by climatologist James Hansen in his 1988 presentation to Congress, “global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and the observed warming” (Shabecoff). From the time of its etymological origin, the world has become well-acquainted with climate change and its unfortunate complications.
Historically, the fluctuating size of glaciers has been a common occurrence since the Little Ice Age (1300-1870) when temperature changes “cause[d] valley glaciers to thicken and lengthen by a matter of two or three kilometers” and again in the late 19th century (Grove 351). However, the post-industrial age has brought on a new speed of glacial retreat showing that glaciers lose, on average, about 10 meters per year (Lenke). This rapid, constant rate of melting “has the potential to raise future sea level by about 0.2-0.7 m” (Soloman 1708). This is when problems for coastal and glacial-neighboring communities arise. The notion that global warming and its subsequent effects on glacial melting are correlated is a pressing issue—so what must we do to prepare for the potentially damaging ramifications that are to come?
Despite many efforts, global warming is ever-progressing, “…models show that even if the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere had been stabilized…we are already committed to further global warming of about another half degree…by the end of the 21st century” (Teng 1769). Rather than only acting after-the-fact, local and national governments should act offensively—prepping for potential consequences of warming, like glacial melting. Switzerland has taken matters of glacier retreat into their own hands, as “severe floods in several glaciated cantons…led the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment to expand its program of hazard mapping” (Loup, Raetzo 311). The environmental organization releases regularly updated maps to the general population, categorizing which residents live in low-risk to highest-risk zones as a way of communal planning for worst case scenarios. Learning from Switzerland, a possible approach we can take involves local communities, with experience in their own environment but little access to resources, ultimately communicating with well-established organizations that have the resources for progressive planning (Orlove 33).
I ask the IPCC to add to their approach. A globalized perspective on research like the use of cleaner energy sources is not proactive enough and disregards the people whose daily existence is being affected by glacial melting today. It is in our best global interest to establish a mutually-beneficial communication between international or national organizations and local, humanitarian work already being conducted within the populations affected most by glacial melting. Combined with the a local’s firsthand experience, a larger organization can provide the means for research and necessary provisions, i.e. alternate forms of energy or innovative ways to stabilize water levels, needed to ensure these impacted communities’ continued safety and further economic livelihood.
On the 27th of September 2013, you, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, presented to the United Nations in Stockholm stating, “Human influence on the climate change is clear” (Lenke et al. 1). In other words, the rise in temperature and its clear correlation with carbon dioxide emissions is no longer merely speculation, but rather a globally relevant phenomenon. Climatologists state, “the warming of the climate system that we are seeing (in the form of melting ice, temperature rise, and sea level rise, among other factors) is…‘unprecedented over decades to millennia’” (qtd. in Mooney). Scientists can say with confidence that the finger can be firmly pointed at humans for the global rise in temperature, in fact “a 40 percent increase in carbon dioxide has occurred since pre-industrial times” (Mooney). Last, and probably most resonant is the scale of our impacts; “much of what we are doing to the planet is ‘irreversible’…temperatures will remain ‘at elevated levels for many centuries,’ even if we completely stop emitting carbon dioxide” (qtd. in Mooney). Simply put, we have established a factually-supported, but rather broad perspective on global warming. Scientists’ concerns are legitimate; environmental change should be considered an “‘elusive hazard,’ cumulative, diffuse, slow-acting and insidious—a universal threat” which will only continue to evolve (qtd. in Jones 126). But how extensive is the research pertaining to temperature rise’s implications on the environment and its geological landmarks that have long existed before us?
Glaciers have existed for one million years. They can be defined as thickened ice masses and compacted snow that presently take up nearly 10% of all land area on Earth. More specifically, the advances in glacier mass that we see in destinations, like Alaska and Greenland, originated during the “Little Ice Age” and can date back to the 17th century (“All about Glaciers”). Although the face of glaciers have always ebbed and flowed as a result of temperature fluctuations, scientists say “the polar ice cap is now melting at the alarming rate of nine percent per decade…thickness has decreased 40% since the 1960s” (“The Consequences of Global Warming”). So who is responsible for defacing these frozen prehistoric land masses? The trail of water can be traced back to humans and the common industrial practice of burning fossil fuels as a source of energy over the past 250 years. Since the Industrial Age’s culmination in the mid-1800s, damaging pollutants of carbon, coal, petroleum, and natural gases have entered the atmosphere at an exponential rate. These harmful emissions make up the world’s greenhouse gases. As in a greenhouse, these gases accumulate in the upper levels of the atmosphere capturing long-wave radiation or heat energy rising from the heated surface of the Earth (Dow and Downing 34). Consequently, this trapped radiation is then redirected back into lower atmospheric levels and causes a slow, but steady rise in global temperature (Bolin). General increase in global temperature causes the surface layers of glaciers to reach their melting point, ultimately melting the faces of these dense ice monuments at an alarming rate (“All about Glaciers”).
As stated in your latest international climate update, an irreversible level of gaseous carbon dioxide has accumulated in Earth’s atmosphere. Since the early Industrial Age, carbon dioxide concentrations have increased at a compounding rate. For example, just from 1990 to 2011, “Emissions totaled 6,702 million metric tons… an eight percent increase” (Environmental Protection Agency). Perhaps most startling is the data in scientific models projecting future carbon levels; “the atmospheric temperature increases are not expected to decrease significantly even if carbon emissions were to completely cease” (Soloman 1704). In other words, with an industrial world’s heavy dependence on burning fossil fuels as an energy source, climate change has reached a point of no feasible return. Like a domino effect, the polluted state of the atmosphere initiates a series of environmental detriments such as, “artic sea ice retreat, increases in heavy rainfall and flooding, permafrost melt, loss of glaciers…changes in water supply...inundation of low-lying coastal areas” (Soloman 1704). Today, glaciers retreat at a rate twice that of the previous decade (Dow and Downing 26). If humans were to sustain these record-highs, melting would persist until all glaciers’ ultimate extinction—simply, there would be nothing more to melt. This is when glacial retreat poses a threat to populations world-wide. The timeline for these populations depends solely on the day we decide to lessen the impact of harmful gas emissions and a peak atmospheric level of carbon dioxide output is reached. For now, levels continue to rise. 
How does this irreversible environmental phenomenon threaten neighboring environments and inhabitancies? This is when the IPCC’s broad approach to reducing our harmful impact as a global community inadvertently overlooks the people that live within direct range of warming’s effects, i.e. glacial melting, each day. Global temperature rise includes many geomorphological effects: “changes to agricultural systems, alterations in ice-volumes and snow-cover, and increases in sea level” just to name a few (Jones 127). Unfortunately, the world focuses far too much on the scientific process behind prevention and creating a cleaner environmental impact rather than on the people it directly affects, “thereby limiting our understanding of how people actually respond to it” (Carey 4). Currently, climatologists are working to find a tolerable level of greenhouse gas concentrations (Dow and Downing 40). UNFCCC “international negotiations have set 2°C as a common temperature for maximum global climate change” in documents like the Kyoto Protocol which plans to regulate the number of emissions a country can produce each year (Dow and Downing 42). Although all these regulations hold potential, setting climate change to a merely tolerable level as a community, acts as a blinder, preventing any strategic policies from being implemented and therefore, any tangible progress from being made.
Huaraz, Peru is a city located below Lake Palcacocha, a glacial lake formed by the erosion and run-off of surrounding glaciers. On December 13th, 1941 the residents of this small South American city experienced one of the many regional consequences of temperature rise’s direct offset: glacial melting. The Quilcay River connecting Huaraz to a higher-elevated Lake Palcacocha was flooding and accumulated a large amount of debris as it sped for the city. According to record, “an estimated 5,000 people perished in Huaraz that morning, and one-third of the city was obliterated” (Carey 27). Prior to the 1940s the majority of research conducted on climate-glacier dynamics focused solely around the Ice Age and the “advance and retreat of continental ice sheets thousands of years earlier;” however, with the destruction of Huaraz came a whole new scientific perspective toward changing environmental conditions (Carey 31). It seemed that with a documented natural disaster, scientists were motivated to research possible links between the changing climate and its resulting environmental effects on specific regions. Scientists and engineers poured into Peru to analyze the glacial lake outburst floods and any future lake threats (Carey 30). They found that the outbursts were a direct result of water rise and changing flow of rivers. This added to water stress and deterioration of natural dams ultimately, “unleashing torrents of water…threatening lives and property downstream” (Dow and Downing 26-27). Peru’s disaster served as a model for future research on glacial retreat. However, this time the approach was specialized and focused locally—the perspective had shifted. 
Mistakenly resource-dependent are the countries in Central Asia, like Tibet, who rely on glacier run-off as a form of hydropower, a source for crop irrigation, and a water supply to the nation’s families. The Tibetan plateau holds the nation’s third-largest store of ice, and parts of China have come to rely on the exponential melting speed of the Tibetan glaciers. Chinese climatologist, Qin Dahe, recognizes the terminal benefit of glacial run-off, “’In the long run, the glaciers are vital lifelines for Asian rivers…Once they vanish, water supplies in those regions will be in peril” (“Global Warming Benefits”). Heavy reliance on an exhaustible resource like glacial run-off may force countries to lose their economic independence and resort to relying on other countries for food exports, or even basic water. Statistics report, “Nearly three billion people live in areas where water demand outstrips supply” (Dow and Downing 62). Water scarcity has become a major economic factor for many regions. In northern India, “500 million people rely on the Indus and Ganges, which are fed largely by glacial melt waters” (Dow and Downing 62). Even the previously mentioned city, Huaraz, Peru “always used glacial runoff for irrigation and drinking” (Carey 15). How can countries like these lessen the risk they take by relying heavily on exhaustible resources? Some countries have implemented water-saving technology and more efficient irrigation methods, but this adaptation in “developing countries has been estimated to cost up to $20 billion a year” (Dow and Downing 62). In many cases, the amount of resources necessary to initiate these preventative strategies poses as a huge barrier in regional communities’ fight against global warming.
Last are the well-established coastal communities of intermittent islands like the Maldives, located off the coast of India. The Maldive Islands, a nation of 360,000 people, faces the possibility of inundation within 100 years. One of the first countries to sign up for the Kyoto Protocol, this series of islands has expressed many concerns with the side effects of global warming; especially concerning sea level rise (Bryant). The Maldivians are so aware of their current geological predicament that the capital, Male, constructed a “3m-high (9.8ft) wall…at a cost of $63 million” around the perimeter of the city (Bryant). Unfortunately, the nation had inadequate funds to complete the preventative project and had to accept financial aid from Japan. However, this wall serves only as a short-term solution to strong tidal surges, experienced every few weeks, and rather ignores the fact that sea levels will continue to rise. Aware that this relief is only temporary, a majority of residents on Kandholhudhoo, one of the most populated Maldivian islands, have agreed to evacuate within the next 15 years—the rest, officials believe, will also be compelled to leave. The Maldives’ communities face potential harm to their livelihoods: loss of fisheries, a decrease in tourism due to epidemics, and the destruction of agricultural crops (Bryant). In summary, these coastal communities will be the first so prominently affected that some may cease to exist within a few years.
The Maldives have already begun long-term resolutions to environmental problems. They are “encouraging forestation to prevent beach erosion” as well as cleaning the country’s coral reefs, a natural barrier that protects the fragile coastline from extreme ocean waves (Bryant). Government officials have placed an importance on education of future leaders by making environmental sciences part of schools’ core curriculum. Sadly, this isolated country’s series of policies hold little weight; “policy makers in Male are depressingly aware, their ultimate fate lies in the hands of politicians in Delhi, Beijing, Moscow and Washington” who all, with personal prosperity in mind, have delayed major revisions to their harmful environmental impact (Bryant).
So how do we formulate a strategy? What can we do prevent regions, like those presented in these case studies, from facing further harm or worse, total collapse? It is vital that the world’s scientists and general public shift their understanding of global warming from a broad perspective that covers the definition of global warming, how it all began, and its widespread effects to a more localized view. This new outlook should publicize how climate change affects the livelihoods of vulnerable populations each day. Currently, government officials and most civilians are fully aware of the long-term effects of global warming, and how it contributes to Earth’s seemingly slow and distant deterioration. We are little versed in the short-term and present day effects. Take the people of Huruaz, Peru whose communities are currently high-risk and have quietly dealt with global temperature change and glacial melting for close to fifty years. As stated by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “We must work to effectively manage the unavoidable, and take immediate action to avoid the manageable” (“Global Warming Solutions”).
Governments and the world’s populations should all continue to incorporate common steps suggested by officials: reduce the amount of gas burned each day, use less electricity, place limits on carbon dioxide emissions, carpool, etc. Taking this approach to climate change can help reduce the negative impacts of warming over time on a globally-united scale. However, our pressing priority should concern what we can do as a nation for specific regions and their local efforts. They are the ones who live in the closest association with changing global warming systems and witness their effects each day.
We need to invest in an adaptive, region-scaled approach to disaster economics, or the use of a catastrophe, disaster, or disaster prevention program “to promote and empower a range of economic development interest” (Carey 12). The easiest transition could be made by simply adding to the regulations considered under the Kyoto Protocol, the current international agreement for reducing atmospheric pollution and modern day understanding the implications of today’s climate change. The Kyoto Protocol already includes all-encompassing parameters that are necessary for a better future, but perhaps the proposal is too broad. After all, it’s difficult for countries suffering from other pertinent foreign and domestic crises to think so long-term. For many countries, environmental awareness often takes a backseat compared to other policy problems. Governments may find a greater motivation to act if they were to see signs of significant progress being made within their own borders. For example, it is said that some countries, like the United States, have been hesitant to fully accept the protocol’s proposals, like carbon dioxide emission reduction, because their energy supply greatly depends on burning fossil fuels. A more domestic, short-term, and productive plan might motivate hesitant countries to participate more. For the United States, a potential solution could be devising a plan for rising threats to port cities, like Los Angeles and New York’s own water level. In short, we would sculpt our priorities from focusing on the long-term implications of climate change to, rather,  preventing the consequences specific regions deal with daily.
The IPCC would only benefit from advocating for these additional, region-specific adjustments in their discussions with the United Nations and different intergovernmental panels. Continuing research is crucial. However, climatologists should shift their concentrations to field research in areas most affected by global warming, i.e. neighboring glacial communities, coastal populations, or port cities. By sending teams of climatologists, already well-rehearsed in the world-wide effects of climate change, to collaborate with the expertise of small communities’ humanitarian efforts, like those found on the islands near India and glacial cities in Nepal and Peru, the global scientific community could adopt a more specialized understanding of the damage climate change has caused and the future threat it poses. Concerning the implications for coastal communities, an idea would be to “restrict major development to less dangerous zones” (Dow and Downing 76). Alternatively, we could mimic Maldivian coastal communities who have at least tried to delay their fate by encouraging forestation close to shore lines. To solve problems pertaining to communities that neighbor glaciers, we can model the innovative progress made in regions of Peru and Nepal. Both have made efforts to control volatile levels of water that threaten to burst weak natural dams and destroy cities lying below. They have developed ways of draining lakes either into the ocean or to an adjacent and more stable lake nearby, “Since 1941, these Peruvian experts have drained and dammed 34 dangerous Cordillera Blanca glacier lakes—major engineering projects in a remote part of the Andes” (Carey 9). For countries like China who depend highly on glacial run-off as a resource for hydropower and water supply, mandates have been passed to find new, renewable ways of forming energy that don’t rely on an exhaustible resource (“Global Warming Benefits”).  Actions like these should be taken in accordance with those already promoted by the IPCC.
Second, progress in climate change would benefit immensely if a consistent communication was coordinated between international organizations and regional efforts. The most progress would be made by establishing an “inter-agency coordinated response” between local humanitarian projects in environmentally-affected regions, and well-established larger organizations that span from a national to international level with resources to fund these smaller, but invaluable projects (“IASC Case Studies” 4). A regional scientist brings something different to the table; their perspective is localized, personal, and motivated. They have personally  experienced the destruction, and attempted to develop scientific advances in preventing further harm in their communities. The communication should follow a consistent schedule with meetings almost every month where regional teams can report their latest findings in a package that highlights the specific ecological needs of the community. Ultimately, organizations should recognize that in the future these now centralized needs could affect the welfare of the nation as a whole. For example, coastal inundation may lead to mass migration and result in overpopulation of a neighboring city or state. In major discussions, smaller, local agencies should convey their sense of immediate urgency to larger agencies (“IASC Case Studies” 21). The larger agencies, with administrative influence, can then communicate with governments or third-party revenue sources; ultimately, to help accumulate additional funding for increased humanitarian efforts. While this region-specific progress is being made, governments and organizations should continue promoting climate change to the general public—ensuring the continuation of long-term environmental progress. One of the greatest success stories concerning inter-agency communication involves the progress made by the IASC, or Inter-Agency Standing Committee, and their “advocacy to mainstream climate change adaptation” and disaster-risk reduction (4). Ultimately, one of the IASC’s main mandates is to “lead the preparation of high-quality analytical inputs to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process…integrating climate risk management into agency policies” (“IASC Case Studies” 5). Through their work, many government-humanitarian discussions have taken place. For example in Africa, the Kenyan Climate Change Working Group is focusing on Kenyan-specific climate change and its greater implications for the nation (i.e. potential for malnutrition, flood hazards, epidemics, mass migrations, etc.) and thus creating a strong internationally recognized African position (“IASC Case Studies” 8-9). Other examples of successful regional-national-international partnerships include coordination of humanitarian groups on islands like the Maldives with Red Cross programs. Red Cross has initiated “training volunteers, distributing satellite phones to facilitate emergency coordination and establishing school children awareness raising programs” (“IASC Case Studies” 12). However, humanitarian efforts still struggle with maintaining a balance between fixing the short-term problems versus maintaining long-term disaster risk reduction (“IASC Case Studies” 13).
Of course, all these efforts cannot be made without a firm base in education. A primary education introducing environmental science, followed later by a secondary education could be a huge asset. Knowledge in this evolving field is elemental in creating future scientific leaders who can create a better environment for tomorrow. Like the Maldivian Islands, all education systems should incorporate some kind of base in environmental awareness and the opportunity to pursue a more extensive understanding in environmental and ecological sciences.
To the IPCC, it is underrepresented regions that need to be made the current priority in the battle against global warming. They need to be saved first. Ultimately, this will teach a greater understanding and provide the world, scientists and citizens alike, with an all-encompassing approach to creating a better environment for the future.

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