With the Earth experiencing its hottest year on record in 2016, the evidence for climate change keeps building. But much of this evidence comes in the form of models and statistics, which can be hard for the general public to process. To make it easier to visualize the effects the changing climate is having on the planet, environmental scientists have put together a series of before-and-after photos, highlighting drastic ice loss.

Some of the photos come from the group's collaboration with the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), founded in 2007 with the specific goal of recording the rapid retreat of glaciers. The program has 43 cameras set up to watch over 24 glaciers around the world, snapping a photo every daylight hour of every day. In other cases, the scientists returned to the sites of old photos taken years or decades ago to snap a current shot.

"We have unretouched photographic evidence of glaciers melting all around the globe," says Gregory Baker, lead author of the study. "That includes the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica — they're reduced in size. These aren't fancy computer models or satellite images where you'd have to make all kinds of corrections for the atmosphere. These are simply photos … So it's just straightforward proof of large-scale ice loss around the globe."

Columbia Glacier, Alaska, has retreated by 6.5 km (4 miles) between 2009 (left) and 2015 (right) (Credit: James Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey)

It's one thing to read that the Columbia Glacier in Alaska has retreated by about 6.5 km (4 miles) between 2009 and 2015, but the impact doesn't really hit home until you can see the difference. Google's Timelapse has captured that massive melt from a satellite's perspective, but seeing it close up is a whole other level of disheartening.

Rising sea levels from melting ice might be one of the major concerns, but it's far from the only run-on effect. Communities that rely on meltwater could find their water supply drying up, and our understanding of Earth's history is in danger too, as we lose the detailed time capsule of environmental data that's been preserved in ice sheets for hundreds of thousands of years.

Stein Glacier, Switzerland, has retreated by 550 m (1,800 ft) between 2006 (left) and 2015 (right) (Credit: James Balog and the Extreme Ice Survey)

"We have all heard of the impact of melting ice on sea level rise, but the public also need to be aware that places around the world depend on glaciers for their water and are going to come under increasing stress, and we already see how water shortages lead to all kinds of conflict," says Baker. "The other critical point often overlooked is that when glaciers melt we're losing these scientific archive records of past climate change at specific locations around the Earth, as if someone came in and threw away all your family photos.

"Glacier ice contains fingerprint evidence of past climate and past biology, trapped within the ice. Analyzing ice cores is one of the best ways to analyze carbon dioxide in the past, and they contain pollen we can look at to see what kind of plant systems may have been around. The more that glacial ice melts, the more we're erasing these historical archives that we may not have measured yet in some remote glaciers, or deep in ice caps, that can tell us the history of the Earth that will be gone forever."

Scientific papers can be pretty dense for the general public to trod through, but because this study is designed to raise general awareness of the issue, the authors say they've carefully written it as a clear and concise overview of their work on the subject.

The paper, titled Savor the Cryosphere, was published in the journal GSA Today.

Source: University of Kansas

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