Glaciers and polar ice melting will cause much more than just rising sea levels

Global Warming is increasing the temperature on earth which is, in turn, melting our glaciers and polar ice. This would lead to an increase in sea-levels which could submerge low lying areas. That is what we learned in school or largely heard in “science” talks. But is that it?

(Well this known fact alone should scare you out of wits, because it’s not some faraway cities or areas which will drown. As per predictions, our beautiful cities like Mumbai and Kolkata could be well under the sea by 2050. Yes, just 30 years from now!)

Is that ice nothing else but a huge mass of frozen water that would just melt away and merge in the oceans?

I am afraid we have been informed so less about how that ice does much more than sustaining Polar Bears and destroying Titanic.

More water!

Glaciers (like the Himalayan glaciers) give birth to our rivers which are the main source of freshwater (for countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh). Rapid melting of the glaciers would result in the shrinking of the size of these glaciers over time which will dry up our rivers. This will directly impact the availability of freshwater for drinking and majorly for agriculture. It may not seem significant right now, but drying up rivers will be havoc for a population of millions of people. And this shrinking is taking place at a pace faster than ever. These glaciers have taken thousands of years to form and the melting which would have taken centuries is now taking place in just a few years.

Consequences of Himalayan glaciers melting

Not to forget, before the rivers dry up, those rapidly melting glaciers will throw in huge volumes of water in the rivers ( yay?), which is no good news for us, as it will lead to enormous flooding. It would destroy the cities, people’s homes and the crops. That would mean a huge economic loss along with an extreme food shortage over time. To give you a scale, the agriculture and all other water needs in Northern India depends on these freshwater rivers, on which closely half a billion people depend upon.

White Reflects!

Starting with the easier concept first. We all know black color absorbs light and heat where white color reflects it keeps stuff (like outer walls of houses) cool. This is exactly what those GIGANTIC masses of ice do. They are like a huge white sheet covering the surface of the earth which reflects the sunlight out and prevents the heat from trapping inside the atmosphere. This process is a key component in the whole system of our planet, working towards maintaining the temperature on Earth.

Without those ice caps, we will have nothing to reflect the sunlight and all that heat would remain in our atmosphere, contributing to the rising temperatures

Trapped in Ice!

This is a very interesting phenomenon and easily understandable. As we know, lower temperatures (and ice) help preserve things for a VERY long time. But how long?

The scientists have found micro-organisms from the Jurassic Times, trapped in the deep layers of ice from the glaciers.

An illustration by Vox

Well, it like ice does an extremely good job. This ice has been able to keep intact traces of primitive viruses, bacteria, plant life, fossils, animals and everything under the sun, which existing during the times when that ice froze. Frozen permafrost soil is the perfect place for bacteria to remain alive for very long periods of time. (Permafrost is by the way a term used for land being frozen for more than 10 years).
Not-so-fun-fact- To give you a scale- the number of micro-organism trapped in all the glaciers of the world is 1000 X the biomass of all the humans on earth.

The scientists have been constantly studying about this, and one such research near the Tibetan glaciers revealed astounding results. They were able to revive such “dead” or “inactive” micro-organisms again from the frozen ice. ( By the way, this also leads to the possibility of being able to revive extinct animals back to life. I see all the ICE AGE fans rejoicing! Sit back, as it is just a theoretic possibility as of now šŸ˜› )

But why should we care about the frozen stuff coming back? We are certainly missing out on a very basic fact here- Those viruses and bacteria have high potential to cause diseases in humans which have never been seen by the human body nor known to our scientists.

So wait! Just ask those scientists not to bring those monsters to the world again. Well, this is what is scary. Even without human intervention, such a case has already happened. Here’s the story –

In August 2016, in a remote corner of Siberian tundra called the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle,Ā a 12-year-old boy diedĀ and at least twenty people were hospitalised after being infected by anthrax.
The theory is that, over 75 years ago, In early 20th century, millions of reindeer died because of anthrax disease and got buried in the soil not very deep. So, those frozen carcasses became trapped under a layer of frozen soil, known as permafrost. There it stayed until a heatwave in the summer of 2016, when the permafrost thawed.
This exposed the reindeer corpse and released infectious anthrax into nearby water and soil, and then into the food supply. More than 2,000 reindeer grazing nearby became infected, which then led to the small number of human cases.

Ā And not only that, scientists haveĀ discoveredĀ fragments of RNA from the 1918 Spanish flu virus in corpses buried in mass graves in Alaska’s tundra. Smallpox and the bubonic plague are also likely buried in Siberia.

Imagine all those eliminated diseases coming back to the world.

So letting these glaciers melt is like opening a tank full of primitive organisms and diseases!

But some of my friends here would think ‘I don’t live near glaciers or cold regions‘. Well, you didn’t have to be in China to get affected by the consequences of Covid-19!

There’s carbon too!

When this ice melts, the threat is not only from these deadly micro organisms. The melting also exposes that old (very old) frozen vegetation and animal bodies which were frozen until now. But now- Now, all of that stuff starts decomposing in the presence of air. The decomposing microbes come into action and start decaying all that matter. And that old vegetation and the no-more frozen dead animals contain carbon.

An illustration by Tim Haslett’s Blog

And that decaying means a lot more methane going into the atmosphere which is the leading cause of global warming.

The decaying also expedites the process of thawing of the ice. And this whole thing becomes a circle, which once started, would not be possible to control.

Let’s not forget the animals!

Image by Britannica

The adverse effects on the animals, vegetation and marine life on the poles and near glaciers is inevitable. The rising temperature is already making the survival of these species difficult. Moreover, the dependency on ice ranges beyond habitation, ranging from living in those areas permanently, coming for food, coming for mating, raising the young ones. There is a whole ecosystem and a food web existing in these icy areas for millions of years. The popular and some of our favorite animals- polar bears, penguins will no longer be able to cope up with these changes and our next generation may not be able to call them their favorites.

So what do we do?

We certainly can not go and cover the glaciers to prevent them from melting. It is a consequence of the bigger problem– GLOBAL WARMING, CLIMATE CHANGE.

When we take action collectively to target the bigger problem and its causes, all these catastrophes will eventually be controlled. But for that, we need to ACT!

The purpose of this article was not to scare you about a whole lot of diseases, especially if you are reading this during the COVID19 situation. The idea is only to spread information, be aware, so that we know that all of these issues are not as simple and straight forward as we think. The reality is much much more than just the rising temperatures or glaciers melting.

It is just like you will not take a medicine unless you get aware that your body is sick, and how sick!

So, don’t be oblivious to the facts and reality!

You can read/watch more about these issues here-
BBC’s article on diseases trapped in ice
Article on melting glaciers
Scientists Wake Up Ancient Viruses Unknown to Medicine
Why Siberia’s permafrost could be a huge carbon problem
What Diseases Frozen in Ice could be Hidden in our Glaciers?Ā 

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