The Wolverine Glacier, near Alaska's south-central coastline, in a photograph from Sept. 2003. A new study determined the total volume of ice tied up in the glaciers worldwide. LiveScience.com

By Becky Oskin, OurAmazingPlanet Staff Writer
23 October 2012

(LiveScience.com) – The relatively small glaciers that drape the planet's mountains will play an important role in future sea level rise, according to a new study that estimated glaciers' collective size.
 
Researchers calculated the ice thickness for 171,000 glaciers worldwide, excluding the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which hold the bulk of Earth's frozen water. Through a combination of direct satellite observations and modeling, they determined the total volume of ice tied up in the glaciers is nearly 41,000 cubic miles (170,000 cubic kilometers), plus or minus 5,000 cubic miles (21,000 cubic km).

If all the glaciers were to melt, global sea levels would rise almost 17 inches (43 centimeters), the scientists found.

The study, published in the 11 October 2012 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research, is an improvement on previous estimates of the global ice volume because it uses a physical approach, said lead study author Matthias Huss, a glaciologist at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

The glacier count comes from the recently released Randolph Glacier Inventory and global topography from NASA satellite data.

"To date, the volume of glaciers was only estimated using very simple empirical equations with high uncertainties," Huss told OurAmazingPlanet in an email interview. "Our new method not only provides an estimate of the ice volume, but allows calculating local ice thickness on a fine grid for each of the 200,000 glaciers worldwide," he said. [Image Gallery: Glaciers Before and After]

Compared with the potential sea level rise from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, the volume of land-based glaciers is relatively small, Huss said. For example, completely melting the Greenland ice sheet would add 23 feet (7 meters) to the average global sea level, according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

But mountain glaciers are still a concern because they "react very fast to higher temperatures and a considerable retreat is very likely in the next decades," Huss said. […]

World's Glaciers Have New Size Estimate

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