The retreat of glaciers could create new ecosystems by 2100

A Franco-Swiss team has studied a model capable of predicting the evolution of snowfields and new habitats that could be generated

Retreat of glaciers: new habitats will emerge that need to be investigated
Matthias Huss drills ice with a measuring rod to determine melting: The data helps document and better understand glacier mass loss (Photo: Clara Streule)

Il retreat of glaciers it could give rise to new ecosystems, covering an area from the size of Nepal to that of Finland by 2100.

According to a study just published in "Nature" by a team of Franco-Swiss researchers, i new ecosystems will have a leading role in the fight against climate change, but also in crucial challenges such as habitat degradation and water scarcity.

- emerging habitats, scientists explain, are already in danger: only half of the planet's glacial areas are in a protected area, and this will also have consequences on the ecosystems that will replace the glaciers.

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The Grossglockner glacier, in the Austrian Alps, has lost 52,5 meters in length in recent years: European glaciers will be among the most affected in a high emissions scenario (Photo: Envato)

Within the century we will lose half of the ice: the study

If we do not consider the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, i alpine glaciers they currently cover approx 650.000 square kilometers, providing water to nearly two billion people and diverse ecosystems around the world.

We know that they are retreating at an alarming rate, due topollution caused by man, but as we read in the research just published in the prestigious magazine "There is not yet a complete global analysis capable of quantifying or anticipating these important changes".

Thus Jean-Baptiste Bosson ofAgency for Nature Conservation of Haute-Savoie e Matthias Huss ofFederal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) have developed a evolution model of these glaciers to predict their behavior between now and 2100.

According to the predictions of the new model, the retreat of the glaciers will continue at the same pace until 2040, and this in all hypothesized climate scenarios. As if to say: acting on this is now beyond our reach.

From 2040 onwards, however, the estimates change based on theprogress of global emissions: in the worst case scenario, the ad high emissions, the planet will lose about half of the glaciers recorded in 2020. If we manage to reduce global emissions, the loss could be reduced by about a fifth.

in high emissions scenario, we read in the study, the loss of glaciers will be more marked on low and medium latitude mountains, such as those ofCentral Europe and Ande: here only 5-20 percent of the glaciers will exceed glaciers by 2100.

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The glaciers of the Nepalese Himalayas, which represent the water reserves of all of Central Asia, have lost more than 15 percent of their surface in the last 50 years (Photo: Envato)

New terrestrial, marine and freshwater ecosystems

THEtemperature increase could reduce the area covered by glaciers by at least a fifth by the end of this century, exposing incredibly vast areas that will see light again for the first time in thousands of years. And on those emerged lands, and in the new sea depths, new habitats will form.

According to the research results, even in the most optimistic scenario the retreat of the glaciers will leave uncovered an area at least twice the size of Ireland by the end of the century. In the worst case, the new "emergent lands" could be up to double.

"This could be one of the largest ecological shifts to occur on our planet”, says the glaciologist Jean-Baptiste Bosson, the first author of the study.

"Within the 2100", we read in the detailed document, "the retreat of glaciers outside the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets could produce new terrestrial, marine and freshwater ecosystems".

in these deglaciated areas, scientists continue, “emerging ecosystems will be characterized by extreme or more stable ecological conditions".

They might offer shelter to species well adapted to the cold whose habitats are being lost, or “promote primary productivity” (i.e. the production of organic matter through photosynthesis) and the existence of generalist species, which have a much broader ecological niche.

The model developed by the Franco-Swiss team classifies emerging habitats into terrestrial, marine and freshwater ecosystems, and also estimates their distribution.

New ecosystems are expected to be for 78 percent terrestrial, for the 14 percent marine and for the '8 percent fresh water.

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New terrestrial and marine ecosystems from the melting of glaciers
According to the model developed by a Franco-Swiss research team, the new habitats will be 78 percent terrestrial, 14 percent marine and 8 percent freshwater (Photo: Envato)

Post-glacial ecosystems: new habitats to protect

As we read in the research, the emergence of new lands could seize 45 to 85 tons of carbon dioxide throughout the 21st century, contributing to emissions capture how he could do it a rainforest of 10.600 square kilometers.

This, according to scientists “immediately highlights the increasingly important role of post-glacial ecosystems as carbon sinks".

The fact remains that the new ecosystems will harvest a limited amount of water, incomparable to that contained in glaciers, which today conserve 135.000 cubic kilometers of it. In short, the ecological shift will be massive.

Will especially fresh waters and coastal habitats to be modified or degraded as a result of the retreat of glaciers, we read in the research.

Post-glacial ecosystems, however, “they will represent rare uncontaminated habitats".

The study also makes a rather precise prediction of the evolution of these emerging ecosystems in different areas of the planet. The model developed by the Bosson and Huss team always predicts two different scenarios: that ad high emissions, which will inevitably lead toextinction of glaciers, and that to low emissions.

Le actions against climate change can change the fate of the planet, and this can also be seen clearly by studying the evolution of new habitats.

"We want to highlight the need to act immediately and urgently to mitigate climate change and to protect these ecosystems”, the study reads, “to safeguard their existence, their function and their value".

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The emerging habitats that will replace the glaciers must be protected: only half are currently in protected areas (Photo: Envato)

From the retreat of the glaciers new habitats of the post-glacial Earth

In one scenario a low emissions, ecological conditions classifiable from extreme to intermediate will dominate the deglaciated areas between now and 2100.

In Canada arctic, on the outskirts of Greenland and on the high Asian peaks this type of habitat will still be predominant, regardless of the scenario considered.

"In parallel to the remaining glaciers for specialized species”, the study reads, “post-glacial ecosystems, in which primary successions will initially occur under conditions of nutrient scarcity, will offer new habitats and refuges for vulnerable species that depend on the cold or for oligotrophic ones”, i.e. those that live in aquatic environments characterized by poverty of nutrients dissolved, like Pacific Salmon.

On the contrary, the post-glacial ecosystems that will be created around theIceland, Ande and New Zealand could mostly be characterized by intermediate conditions, “which would limit the chances of survival of cryophilous species, including endemic ones".

In areas where the extent of the glaciers exceeds the tree line, as on Rockies or on ours Alps, "primary forests could develop rapidly in an area of ​​103-104 square km of land” and contribute to offset the losses connected to climate change and deforestation.

These new habitats, inevitably pristine, will change quickly, and they will have their role in the most urgent global challengesi, from climate change to water scarcity.

According to the authors of the study, it will not be enough to do everything possible to limit the retreat of glaciers. It will soon be necessary to concentrate resources and attention on protection of these emerging ecosystems to guarantee its future.

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The future of glaciers with Matthias Huss (WSL)

The future of glaciers with Jean-Baptiste Bosson (Asters)

Glacier retreat: The retreat of Alpine glaciers will create new ecosystems, perhaps by the end of this century
The retreat of Alpine glaciers will create new ecosystems, perhaps by the end of this century: research in "Nature" (Photo: Envato)