Global warming threatens worldwide fresh water access

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Photo by Gary Comer Water from melting glacier in Greenland.
Photo by Gary Comer
Water from melting glacier in Greenland.

by Mike DiFerdinando
Oct 11, 2011

With increasing temperatures on Earth, glaciers melt and ocean levels rise ever more rapidly, claiming coasts and causing floods. But global warming will have other serious impacts on the planet’s water resources.

“A lot of these mountainous areas, including the western United States, the water resources used by the general population are largely glacial fed. Or they’re in mountain reservoirs,” said Brent Goehring, a climate scientist at Purdue University and participant in the 2011 Comer Conference on abrupt climate change. “You can kind of think of the glaciers as a natural meter reservoir. It accumulates water during the winter, and then during the summer when it melts, it lets it out at a nice consistent rate.”

While the same amount of fresh water overall may be available in a given year in the absence of glaciers, the way it comes out of the systems will different. 

“If it’s just snow and there aren’t any glaciers, per say, it’s going to come out really fast in the spring or the early summer and there wont be any water for the late summer. And the later summer is really when you need water, especially for growing produce.”

Goehring said that a more serious threat might come in the peak of summer when there may no longer be enough fresh water to drink for some populations. This has already begun in places like the Andes where melting glaciers threaten the water supply of a developing region. 

The disappearance of glaciers may also put a dent in the amount of clean energy resources we have. Not only are glaciers providing water for consumption, but they also provide a steady stream of hydroelectric power. This is especially true of countries like Switzerland and Norway that rely heavily on hydroelectric power.

“The glaciers are accumulating snow and ice, and then during the summer when some areas of southern Europe need all this energy for air conditioning, the glaciers melt and all this sub-glacial water is diverted into a tunnel and it goes through a hydroelectric power plant,” Goehring said. 

Another less publicized result of melting glaciers is the economic impact on tourism, especially the Alps in Switzerland and surrounding countries whose economies rely on the income they provide.  According to the World Trade Organization, tourists spent $17.1 billion in Switzerland in 2008 and the industry accounts for 4.4 percent of the Swiss workforce.

“You’re still going to have tourists going there for the beautiful mountains but you’re not going to have this classic Matterhorn scene with glaciers in the background and Heidi yodeling,” Goehring said.

“The sad truth is that as long as people argue about (whether there’s a climate problem) it’s kind of a fiddling while Rome burns,” said Toby Koffman, a climate scientist at the University of Maine. “We’ll see in years and maybe decades to come that it was a mistake to delay action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

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