“As a New Yorker, I’m very aware of 9/11… Thousands of people died. Property was destroyed. And the entire fabric of the city — the skyline that is so much a part of New York — lost a key piece,” recalled Dr. Orlove. “So, for people who live in mountain countries to see that the peaks that have defined them — that have made them who they are — are changing, even if they’re changing over decades, that’s a rapid change… Those mountains are changing as irreversibly as the collapse of the Twin Towers.”
“What do you do when there’s just this distressing loss of your homelands?”
Ben Orlove, Director of Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, studies the psychic impact of glacial retreat, looking at what happens when the only home you have ever known melts away before your very eyes. Climate change is exterminating the world’s glaciers with terrifying speed and tangible consequences. Icy behemoths that once fed streams and rivers have fled, leaving farmers and families thirsty for clean water. But according to Orlove, that’s only part of the story. As he noted, even when communities find ways to adapt, there’s still the question: “What do you do when there’s just this distressing loss of your homelands?”
Orlove recalled speaking with natives of the Italian Alps. “These are people who see glacier retreat, and it’s interesting to see how specifically they’ll notice it, how they’ll talk about their mountain and the changes in the ice on their mountain.” For locals, it’s clear that climate change has disrupted the annual rhythm of alpine glaciers. Mountains once gathered snow in the winter months before trimming down for swimsuit season. When cold weather returned, they always regained what was lost. Today, thanks to rising temperatures, melting now outpaces the formation of new ice, which means that glaciers never recover from summer losses. Instead, they just wither away.
Glacial retreat allows us to see, touch and feel the effects of carbon pollution. Orlove explained, “Glacier melt is one of the simplest and most direct impacts of climate change that I know.” All over the world, these blue giants are in vanishing, from Switzerland to Kyrgyzstan, from Chile to the United States. According to a paper published earlier this month in the Journal of Glaciology, glaciers are now disappearing at unprecedented rates — two to three times faster than the 20th century average. Said Orlove, “It’s really a very simple line from greenhouse gas concentrations to higher temperatures to glacier melt.”
It would be safe to regard widespread glacial retreat as the canary in the climate coal mine, a not-so-gentle reminder of the perils of fossil fuels. To a few, however, it portends something much more sinister. In the Peruvian Andes, locals believe glacial melt signals the end of the world. Orlove recalled a conversation with a sheepherder: “She said, ‘When the glaciers are gone, when all that ice is gone, there will be no more water. There’s going to be the end of life. There will be a mighty wind that will come, and it will just blow everything away.’”