18 December 2007

Glacial language changes

Languages are constantly evolving. As new ideas and experiences are introduced into a given culture, their language adds new words to facilitate communication. Similarly, as ideas become outmoded or fall out of favour, words become obsolete or obscure, no longer used in normal discourse. This is a natural part of a living language.

Unfortunately, the realities of climate change may help in driving the future evolution of the English language. In particular, the word glacier may become obsolete because we may no longer have the concept of “an extended mass of ice formed from snow falling and accumulating over the years and moving very slowly..." As has been noted before on planet doom?, glaciers around the world are in retreat. Further instances on this trend have also been noted of late.

In Chile, the 30 000-year-old San Rafael glacier has retreated 12 km since 1871. This behaviour is consistent with the majority of Chile's glaciers, which 'are not in balance with current climatic conditions'. The warming temperatures mean that new snow is unable to replenish the lost mass as icebergs calve off the glacier.

In the high Alps of Europe, glaciers were once a source of ice for the cafes of Paris and Marseille. Swiss glaciers are now in retreat, being replaced by vegetation where once there was only ice. The changes are widespread, causing problems for ski resorts and resulting in a loss of water supplies, as the source melts away in the warming climate.

The Rockies in western North America are seeing similar problems. The glaciers in Montana's Glacier National Park will likely be melted away before 2030. Computer modeling suggests that about a quarter of this melting is due to natural temperature variations; the remainder is due to human alterations of climate. Only 25 of 150 glaciers remain in the park today. In British Columbia, retreating glaciers have recently revealed tree stumps that are 7000 years old, indicating the last time the region was ice-free.

In Tibet, recently drilled ice cores are lacking the signs of the radioactive tests of the 50s and 60s present in every other ice core around the world. This missing signal suggests that this Tibetan ice field has been shrinking at least since the A-bomb test half a century ago. As noted in a previous post, this spells trouble for the substantial portion of the world's population who depend on these glaciers for water. In western China, high-altitude glaciers in Xinjiang and portions of Tibet have shrunk by 18% over the last five years due to global warming.

The adjective glacial isn't particularly apropos here, either. The changes are happening at anything but “extremely slowly”. That usage of the word may be headed for the language's rubbish bin as well. However, the real tragedy here isn't the potential loss of a few words from the English language. Rather, the true disaster is the rapid loss of glacial ice, along with rapid ice melt also occurring in Greenland and in the sea ice of the Arctic. This will disrupt the ecosystem, leading to a loss of biodiversity, and negatively impact the lives of those who depend on these regions for their livelihood. Once gone, they are unlikely to return. The loss is likely permanent.

While opinions vary, in my view the Bali conference resulted in a watered-down agreement (with glacial meltwater?). It does nothing meaningful to stop crises like these from occurring. I guess it's better than nothing, but more must be done. Cracks in our society are already appearing, and delaying action just makes future mitigation more difficult. Citizens of the world must continue to pressure their governments to act responsibly on climate change. But it can't just be left up to governments; they won't act unless forced. We -- particularly in the so-called developed world -- must act as individuals to reduce our ecological footprint and live a more sustainable lifestyle. Lots of small actions can add up to a meaningful difference.


Image of Glacier National Park from NASA Earth Observatory

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