Hydrometeorological Firm Announces Glacier Monitoring System To Help Track Climate Change

Posted: 12th February 2015 11:55

A small Washington State firm now offers a website at that will monitor glaciers the world over, hoping to document climate changes that humans cannot detect. Glaciers are more sensitive to the climate than humans are and, as the climate continues to change unpredictably, observing the health of a large number of glaciers in different environments and elevations has scientific and practical value. "There are three climate-dependent phenomena that currently are of major concern for civilization," says Wendell Tangborn of HyMet Inc., located on Vashon Island, Washington. "They are sea level rise, extreme weather events, and global food production." All three can be related to the health of the world's glaciers.

The health of a glacier is reflected in its mass balance. When the mass balance is negative it means the glacier is shrinking faster than it is accumulating snow. The ultimate goal of the glacier monitoring system at is to provide daily mass balances for many of the world's glaciers for purposes of tracking climate change. A computer model, called the PTAA Model, calculates mass balances at minimal cost and labour using easily obtained glacier area-altitude distributions and weather observations.

The website–which now has six glaciers with detailed status reports and thirty more listed for completion–was developed by Matthew Mosteller at Vashon IT. Tangborn developed the model and is hopeful that a government agency like USGS or NOAA will eventually take over the glacier monitoring effort. "A global climate monitoring system would require only a small investment of funding and manpower," says Tangborn, "but would have considerable utilitarian benefits." For example, a model showing the relationships between glaciers and extreme weather events and/or world food production would be one possibility.

Tangborn added, "Even though glacier balances began about 1980 to be alarmingly negative, suggesting that fossil fuel burning should be curtailed, no one heeded the warning then any more than they do now when emissions to the atmosphere are 44 billion tons per year, a 2.5 % increase over 2013." He also pointed out that other warning signs (sea level rise, shrinking ice sheets, ocean warming and acidification, disappearing Arctic sea ice and global snow cover) are ignored, even though the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now stands at 400 ppm, likely the highest it has been for 20 million years. The average global temperature is now the highest it has been for at least 1300 years, and Arctic sea-ice cover on September 16, 2012, was at its lowest in over 100 thousand years.

Tangborn says, "I believe that glaciers are sentinels of climate change. It is not too late to curtail fossil fuel consumption but it's becoming more difficult to implement. If we had heeded the warnings glaciers were giving us 30 to 40 years ago and started a crash program of renewable energy, climate change and our reliance on fossil fuels would now be less dire."