Hiking on glaciers may seem like a dangerous proposition—but dangerous for whom? A couple of recent happenings imply that the glaciers themselves may be just as at risk as the humans traversing them, if not more so.
In February, officials in Xinjiang, China, a large region in the northwestern part of the country, banned tourism on glaciers after determining that "global warming, grazing, mining and tourism have accelerated destruction of the glaciers." Xinjiang, an arid region, is home to more than 18,000 of China's 46,000 glaciers. These glaciers are an extremely important water source for the region, and their loss has already led to water shortages in some areas. Many of the glaciers have already shrunk by 15%-30% over the last few decades.
Rather than walking on the glaciers, tourists are being encouraged to look at them from a distance. This decision was certainly not made lightly, as tourism is a major economic driver for the remote region.
"Glacier tourism brought in revenue of less than one billion yuan ($152 million) over the past dozen years, but the loss from shrinking glaciers is incalculable," said Li Jidong from the regional tourism administration.
In another sign of the instability of the glacier tourism industry, authorities in New Zealand recently suspended tourism on two the country's most wondrous and popular glaciers because their rapid melting has become a serious safety hazard. Now, the only way for the one million tourists visiting the area every year to get on the glaciers to by helicopter. As the glaciers have melted, exposed valley cliffs have given way to hazardous rock slides.
According to a 2014 paper published in the journal Global and Planetary Change, the glaciers have each contracted about two miles since the 1800s, a shrinkage of about 20%. The pace of melt has recently increased, according to the authors.
"We know that glaciers around the world, including the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, are responding to that warmer temperature and they're retreating," Heather Purdie, a scientist at the University of Canterbury and lead author of the paper, told The Associated Press.
Just like in China, tourists are being reoriented to observe the glaciers from afar. In New Zealand, their melt has actually given rise to a whole new industry: watching massive icebergs calve while riding on a boat. A similar occurrence in Argentina's Patagonia region regularly draws large crowds to watch glaciers fall apart.
In the Pacific Northwest, people trying to explore and map caves within glaciers—ice caves—are engaged in a race against time as the glaciers, found on famous mountains like Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier, are rapidly disappearing. A group called the Glacier Cave Explorers has set up an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $25,000 to spend on equipment to survey the caves.
"Glaciers are universally-accepted indicators of climate change and global warming," states the campaign page. "Most glaciers have crevasses, but few have cave systems. These caves offer a rare x-ray view into the internal workings of a glacier."
A few states over, Montana's Glacier National Park is at risk of losing its namesake within a few decades. According to a recent release from the U.S. Department of Interior, the park's glaciers are melting so quickly they're expected to disappear in the next two decades.
Of course there are much bigger glaciers to fry, such as those occupying Greenland. As the Washington Post recently reported, Greenland is losing around 287 billion tons of ice per year—enough to raise global sea levels by almost a millimeter. If all of Greenland's ice melted, sea levels could rise by as much as 20 feet.
The scaling back of glacier tourism is part of a broader cutting back of winter sports as the planet warms. Ski resorts across the globe have been impacted by shorter seasons in recent years as snowmaking machines have become more widespread. A recent New York Times article noted how a "few bad winters" coupled with a sluggish global economy and changing tastes in sports has brought the snowboarding industry to a low point in the sport's short history, even as the sport recently made its Olympic debut.