Why do glaciers retreat?

Glaciers form in areas of snowfall where conditions are cold enough to allow snow to lie until it has frozen into ice. Ranging in size based on climate conditions and snowfall levels, many are the remnants of the last ice age, when frozen peaks covered over 30 per cent of all land. 

Referring to them as remnants gives the impression that these frozen spectacles are declining. Currently these thick ice blocks dominate 15 million square kilometres of our planet, but as human activity continues to increase global temperatures, glaciers are reverting back to water at a faster rate than they would naturally.

It’s not unusual for glaciers to be subjected to melting during their lifetime, but they run on a continuous snow budget. If they lose ice quicker than they receive their income of fresh snow, their mass begins to diminish and glaciers begin to retreat.

Glaciologists analyse the activity of glaciers year on year. Studying individual glaciers can provide insight into which are growing, which are sustaining their mass and which are retreating. This being said, specific locations come with their own patterns, and a glacier’s state depends heavily on its surroundings.

To an extent, glacial retreat is natural, and the causes of this can vary from temperature and evaporation to wind scouring. The build of these structures can often be season dependent, meaning a slight summer decrease is nothing to worry about, as the winter snowfall will make up for any mass lost as the season continues. Determining global glacier patterns for unnatural retreating requires long-term data to be analysed over a variety of locations.

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