Alaska’s Glaciers Near Irreversible Tipping Point, Study Warns

A major icefield spanning Alaska and British Columbia may reach an irreversible tipping point sooner than predicted, with glaciers rapidly receding since 2005, according to a new study published in Nature Communications. The research focused on the Juneau Icefield, which included 1,050 glaciers covering 3,816.3 square kilometres in 2019. The study found that glacier shrinkage from 2015 to 2019 was five times faster than between 1948 and 1979.

Bethan Davies, a Senior Lecturer at Newcastle University and lead author of the study, emphasized the significant contribution of Alaskan glaciers to sea level rise, noting that they contribute the most from any glacierized region. The study reveals that Alaska’s glaciers are losing about 66.7 billion tonnes of ice annually, enough to raise global sea levels by 46.4 millimetres if melted completely. At this rate, all Alaskan ice could vanish in approximately 250 years.

Davies and her colleagues from the United States and Europe studied glacier mass loss acceleration and the processes amplifying this melt to understand glaciers’ long-term response to climate change. This research aims to improve predictions of how icefields might respond to future climate conditions.

The study reconstructed the Little Ice Age, revealing that the icefield covered 5,414.95 square kilometres in 1770, about 30% larger than in 2019. From 1770 to 2013, the glacier volume loss was 0.4 cubic kilometres per year. The accelerating glacier mass loss underscores the urgent need to address climate change to mitigate further impacts on global sea levels.

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