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  • Writer's pictureTamanna Mohapatra

Glaciers, ppm, and Chasing Ice

Hello everyone and a happy summer to you all!

Every time I learn something new that helps clarify some concept or makes me realize the importance of the topic, my first thought is- wow, that was so well explained! My second thought usually is, I should blog on it so that I can pass along this wonderful learning and help clarify someone else’s thoughts and understanding.

You may wonder why I have such an odd post title at first glance the three topics may seem dissimilar but they are all very much related. As you read along you will also have the ‘aha’ moment I got to experience (if I am able to do a good job explaining that is!).

Let’s see, I guess watching the absolutely stunning and inspiring documentary Chasing Ice is what started this whole episode.  Besides having spectacular glacier coverage in all parts of the world, the documentary is a visual and easy to learn lesson on climate change. It was made by a National Geographic photographer James Balog and his equally dedicated students to show the world two things: one that climate change is real and there is no confusion around it and second that observing our receding and depleting glaciers is one of the most beautiful and saddest means of confirming climate change.

I felt very inspired seeing the movie because he shows the dedication and perseverance one needs to go after what one believes in. In his case it was his experiment in planting 42 + cameras across glacier terrain in Alaska, Montana, Iceland and Greenland to that utilized time-lapse photography to capture a multi-year record of the world’s depleting glaciers. In my case it is my dream to work in sustainability and make more people aware of why it’s important and the role we currently play in destroying our environment and the future role we can play in protecting/preserving it.

One of the ways the documentary explained the concept of Climate change is through the concept of parts per million, otherwise known as ppm. There is a very well-known organization out there started by Bill McKibben called 350.0rg. It is based on this concept of ppm. Although I study sustainability and am a member of, till now I hadn’t had the concept explained so succinctly and clearly.

Although the amount of CO2  in the atmosphere is very minimal (as designated by parts per million), is still has a huge impact on the environment. As per the movie, “Carbon and temperature vary together. Over the last 800,000 years or so, the amount of atmospheric carbon in the air was never more than 280 ppm. Until we started adding carbon to the air. Now it’s around 390 ppm, about 40% higher than when carbon was occurring for natural reasons. But now we’re heading to 500 ppm or more.

It’s not just that the weather is changing, it is that the air is changing. Greenhouse gasses occur in very small amounts. By increasing that by just a little bit, you change the background state of the system and make it much more susceptible to increased extremes. These extremes caused by excess CO2 in the air is what is most often referred to as  Climate Change.” is environmentalist’s efforts to bring the CO2 in the atmosphere from 390 and fast increasing to 350, hence the name!

This brings us to the final concept of this piece–all about Glaciers. Everyone talks about glaciers but I don’t think many of us listening have a proper idea of what exactly is a glacier. Here’s a good definition: Glaciers are the largest moving objects on earth. Inherent in this definition are the three main characteristics of glaciers.  They are:

  • Made of ice (consist of ice crystals, air, water, and rock debris)

  • Constantly moving (even if it moves at a speed of one millimeter per year, it still has to move to be considered a glacier)

  • Formed on land (all glaciers must originally form on land, although subsequently they may go to sea. Glaciers may extend out into the water, but they cannot initially form over water.)

I learnt this when I visited Glacier National Park in Montana with a friend this June. At one point this park used to have 125 + glaciers to view, touch and admire. Now there are less than 25 glaciers remaining. Chasing Ice mentions that in a few more years it will have to be referred to as ‘Glacierless National Park.’ That will indeed be a very sad year in our lives.  Glaciers have gained importance over the years as they provide a very visual way of seeing the effects of climate change. The documentary explains how ‘the melting fresh water from glaciers alters the ocean, not only by directly contributing to the global sea level rise, but also by changing the currents in the ocean.’ James Balog does a great job of explaining why glaciers matter and is very much worth the few minutes of educational reading time required.

I would be very happy if upon reading this blog post a few people became more aware of how connected every thing in our physical world is. I would be even happier if someone read this and got inspired to either watch the movie or visit one of the many stunning glaciers around the world and in this country. So go on and make me (and yourself) happy.

Additional references: (various types of glaciers) (how are glaciers formed?) (short video describing glaciers)

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