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What is the cryosphere and why is it important?

The word “cryosphere” comes from the Greek word for cold, “kryos.” Ice and snow are the largest part of the Earth’s cryosphere. This includes the continental ice sheets found in Greenland and Antarctica, as well as ice caps, glaciers, and areas of snow and permafrost. Did you know the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets contain 99 percent of the freshwater ice on the planet?

People generally think of the cryosphere as just encompassing the regions around the poles. But snow and ice are also found at many other locations on Earth. Another part of the cryosphere is the ice that is found in water. This includes frozen parts of the ocean, such as waters surrounding Antarctica and the Arctic. It also includes frozen rivers and lakes, which mainly occur in polar areas.

The only penguin species that breeds during the Antarctic winter  emperor penguins trek 50–120 km ...

The only penguin species that breeds during the Antarctic winter, emperor penguins trek 50–120 km (31–75 mi) over the ice to breeding colonies which may include thousands of individuals.
Michael Van Woert, NOAA NESDIS, ORA

The cryosphere between the poles
We can find the cryosphere far away from the North and South Poles, too. All we have to do is look to places with very high elevations, like the Himalayas, the Tibetan Plateau, the Andes in South America, and in the high mountains of the United States, as well as in the northern reaches of Canada, China, and Russia.

We can also see seasonal evidence of the cryosphere – in places where snow falls, and where soil, rivers, and lakes freeze. The best way to sum up what is included in the planet’s cryosphere is to remember that snow and ice are the key ingredients in every aspect of the cryosphere.

Sled dogs wade through water on melting sea ice during an expedition in North Western Greenland  as ...

Sled dogs wade through water on melting sea ice during an expedition in North Western Greenland, as shown in this June 13, 2019 image by Steffen Olsen of the Centre for Ocean and Ice at the Danish Meteoroligical Institute
Steffen Olsen, Centre for Ocean and Ice at the Danish Meteoroligical Institute/AFP

Naturally, in the winter months, regardless of it we live in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, we can expect to see an increase of colder weather and more snow and ice. And while some people may not like snowy winter days and freezing temperatures, this aspect of the cryosphere is essential to cooling down the Earth.

Not only does the cryosphere help to control the planet’s temperature, but it also controls the global sea levels. It affects ocean currents and storm patterns around the world, and the melting snow and ice provides freshwater for human consumption and irrigation of our crops.

Ice covers Lake Michigan's shoreline as temperatures dropped to -20 degrees F (-29C) in Chicago

Ice covers Lake Michigan's shoreline as temperatures dropped to -20 degrees F (-29C) in Chicago

Our cryosphere is in trouble
More than 100 scientists from 30 countries released the IPCC special report examining climate change impacts on the oceans and a less familiar but critically important part of the Earth: the cryosphere. Just how important are our oceans and the cryosphere?

The simple answer is that they are now critically important. A total of 670 million people in high mountain regions and 680 million people in low-lying coastal zones depend directly on these systems. Four million people live permanently in the Arctic region, and small island developing states are home to 65 million people, says the report.

Pastoruri glacier  along with more than 700 other Peruvian glaciers  is disappearing. Actually  you ...

Pastoruri glacier, along with more than 700 other Peruvian glaciers, is disappearing. Actually, you can’t even call Pastoruri a glacier anymore because it does not build up ice in the winter to release in the summer.
Edubucher (CC BY-SA 3.0)

People in mountain regions are increasingly exposed to hazards and changes in water availability, the report said. This is evidenced by the loss of smaller glaciers in Europe, eastern Africa, the tropical Andes, and Indonesia. It is projected that the loss of these glaciers could reach 80 percent by 2100.

And like a cascade effect in real life, the melting of these glaciers is starting to alter water availability and quality downstream, with implications for many sectors such as agriculture and hydropower.

“Changes in water availability will not just affect people in these high mountain regions, but also communities much further downstream,” said Panmao Zhai, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I.

In parts of the Alps  permafrost -- the year-round ice found at high altitude -- is melting and with...

In parts of the Alps, permafrost — the year-round ice found at high altitude — is melting and with it the glue that binds together giant slabs of rock

However, the threats of our shrinking cryosphere involve much more than impacts to local and regional economies. All that snow and ice serves an important purpose – it reflects the sun’s energy back into space, helping to regulate Earth’s temperature. And the warming we are seeing today is seen in the loss of sea ice and melting permafrost.

“As our climate gets hotter, the cryosphere will continue to shrink and melt, and the impacts of losing it will likely only multiply. What we see today is just the beginning,” according to Mark Serreze with the National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado Boulder.

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Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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