Earth’s glaciers—mountainous masses of moving ice—cover an estimated 10 percent of the planet and store nearly 70 percent of the world’s fresh water. But these frozen giants, which exist on every continent except Australia, are facing extinction. Thanks in part to global warming, roughly 28 trillion tons of ice has vanished since the mid-1990s, and 1.2 trillion tons now disappear each year. Here are a few “rivers of ice” from around the world retreating at a rapid rate.
1. Furtwängler Glacier // Tanzania
Africa’s tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro, rises 3.7 miles above sea level in Tanzania. Throughout the 19th century, tropical glaciers framed the mountain’s central cone, the Kibo caldera. But more recently, glaciers clinging to Kibo have endured loss of about 90 percent of its mass due to sublimation, a process in which ice evaporates into vapor without melting first. Furtwängler, Kilimanjaro’s largest glacier, exists now as a thin ice wall. It shrank by nearly 70 percent between 2014 and 2020, and scientists estimate it will soon be gone.
2. Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers // Antarctica
The Antarctic Ice Sheet contains 7.2 million cubic miles of ice, and it’s drained by several “ice streams” leading to the ocean. Pine Island Glacier (PIG) and its neighbor Thwaites are among the largest and leakiest, serving as the main streams for ice to slip into the Amundsen Sea. This western pocket alone contains enough vulnerable ice to raise the global sea level by 4 feet. PIG alone loses roughly 58 billion tons of ice each year.
3. Siachen Glacier // India
The 54,000 glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH), a region stretching across eight countries from Pakistan to central China, serve as a water source for 10 major river basins and around 1.65 billion people. Glacier loss threatens these communities. From 1975 to 2000, HKH glaciers lost an average 10 inches a year, and that rate doubled between 2000 and 2016. Siachen Glacier is the longest in the Indian Himalayas and second longest in the world’s non-polar areas.
4. Aletsch Glacier // Switzerland
Aletsch, the largest glacier in the Alps, has retreated nearly two miles since 1870. This ice river and more than 1500 others in Switzerland have lost 60 percent of their volume since 1850. Popular pastimes are also feeling the heat. A 2019 study in the journal Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research reviewed the evolution of 95 regional mountaineering routes. Ninety-three had been “affected” by climate change, and of those, 26 were “greatly affected.” Three no longer exist at all.
5. Mer de Glace // France
Mer de Glace is the largest glacier in France and second longest in the Alps. Nestled near the Alps’ highest summit, Mont Blanc, Mer de Glace offers visitors a view of glacier life quickly disappearing. It has shrunk by a third since the 1900s, with total loss of 1.5 cubic kilometers, or roughly “half a million Olympic swimming pools” of ice, according to Bloomberg. In 1988, visitors could exit a cable car and take three steps to reach the ice. It required nearly 120 steps in 2000, and is now approaching 600. Threatened flora and fauna include the génépi plant, which produces a drink similar to absinthe, and the rock ptarmigan.
6. Blackfoot Glacier // United States
Montana’s Glacier National Park was once home to 150 glaciers, which decreased to 80 by 1850. The park was created in 1910, and joined with Canada’s Waterton Lakes Provincial Park to form the world’s first International Peace Park straddling the two countries’ border in 1932. Glacier has 26 of its eponymous ice rivers left today, which are projected to disappear by 2030. Every named glacier shrank (some by 80 percent) between 1966 and 2015, according to the National Park Service. Blackfoot Glacier is the largest of those left at approximately .7 square miles.
7. Muir Glacier // United States
Glacier Bay, the centerpiece of Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, was completely filled with ice in 1750, but the glaciers feeding it have withdrawn by more than 60 miles since. All told, 99 percent of Alaska’s tidewater glaciers (which terminate in tidal inlets and bays) are in retreat. Many now terminate on land, shedding ice into the sea no more. Muir Glacier, one of the region’s most notable vanishing acts and former major attractions, used to deliver baby ‘bergs daily, but has receded over 30 miles since 1892. Muir flowed at about 16 feet per day until 1979; today it lumbers along at little more than six inches a day.
8. Sermeq Kujalleq (Jakobshavn) Glacier // Greenland
Greenland holds the world’s “other” ice sheet: along with Antarctica’s, their ice sheets contain more than 99 percent of the freshwater ice on Earth. If the Greenland ice sheet melted entirely, global sea levels would rise 20 feet. Vast influxes of cold fresh water to the ocean could interfere with the Gulf Stream and Amazon rainforest. From 1979 to 2006, its loss of ice increased by 30 percent. Sermeq Kujalleq (Jakobshavn in Danish), Greenland’s largest glacier, is receding nearly two miles inland annually. NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland (yes, “OMG”) project will soon wrap up a six-year study to understand how warmer ocean waters and colder ice-sheet melt affect the movement of glaciers.
9. San Rafael Glacier // Chile
Patagonia’s icefield has northern and southern lobes, and it’s also melting at one of the planet’s highest rates. The San Rafael Glacier, part of the northern segment, is the area’s only ocean-reaching outlet and the closest ocean-terminating glacier to the Equator. San Rafael begins on Monte San Valentin, the tallest Patagonian summit, and is one of the most actively calving glaciers in the world due to its fast flow (4.7 miles per year). It’s the speediest glacier in Patagonia and among the swiftest in the world. From 1870 to 2011, San Rafael’s area shrank by 11.5 percent.
10. Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers // New Zealand
New Zealand has accessible glaciers in its Southern Alps, where retreat is easily observed by non-scientists. The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research has found that a third of the permanent ice from the alpine range was lost from 1977 to 2014. The tourist-friendly Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are taking a huge hit. Fox lost half a mile from 2008 to 2018, and Franz Josef has been retreating even more rapidly, losing almost a mile in the same time frame—its fastest rate ever recorded. The retreat threatens the livelihoods of New Zealand’s glacier guides, who struggle to find ways of ferrying tourists to the ice ever farther away.
11. Puncak Jaya Glacier // Indonesia
Puncak Jaya in Papua features the last of the tropical glaciers in the Western Pacific Warm Pool, an area that serves as a “heat engine” and climate regulator for the world. Glaciers here have receded and thinned. A 2021 study in the journal Global and Planetary Change revealed Puncak Jaya lost approximately 93 percent of its ice from 1980 to 2018. Models predict its shrinkage will continue, leading to total ice loss this decade. That would mean the end of the only tropical glacier between the Himalayas and the Andes.
12. Quelccaya Glacier // Peru
The Andes range is home to 99 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, spanning seven countries, with 70 percent found in Peru. The Quelccaya glacier is that country’s largest ice cap and the second-largest glaciated area in the tropics. Its surface area decreased by 46 percent from 1976 to 2020, and it’s expected to disappear within the century, impacting the surrounding ecosystem, economy, and local communities. Another Andean casualty is the former Chacaltaya Glacier in Bolivia, which left a ghost town and ski resort behind by 2009, six years earlier than scientists in the 1990s had expected.