Keep it Frozen! Melting Snow & Glaciers Threaten Our Climate Future

October 7, 2015

We’re open to people enjoying our ice cream however they like, but for the most part we think it’s best served frozen. As a rule, we store it in freezers— if we let it all melt, not only would it be a big sticky mess, but, worst of all, there wouldn’t be any left to enjoy later!


If there’s one natural resource that shares many of the same qualities as ice cream, it’s snow. As any skier or snowboarder will tell you, snow just isn’t as enjoyable when it melts prematurely. Even more importantly, snow stores water throughout the winter, which we rely on being released into rivers and streams at a predictable time each spring. But unlike the consistent -10° F our ice cream enjoys, snow is getting cooked by climate change— exacerbating droughts and threatening agriculture around the world. Here’s the scoop on why we need to keep things cooler in the planet’s natural freezers.

A Water Bank that’s Drying Up

Not to, ahem, milk the ice cream metaphor, but just imagine life before modern the refrigerator and freezer. Our food options and productivity were limited, and planning dinner or dessert was probably nearly impossible. Snowfall high up in mountains, and the massive glaciers that crown our world’s peaks have operated like refrigerators for thousands of years: storing water for later, and allowing civilizations to develop around a consistent, and reliable, waterflow when the snow melted each spring.

Now, an uptick in atmospheric temperature due to climate change is leading to reduced snowfall around the world. Nationally, our winters have been warming .55 degrees Fahrenheit each decade since 1970. If we don’t curb carbon emissions, snowfall will be so slim that half of the ski areas in the Northeast will likely close in the next 30 years, and the West Coast could be totally snowless. What’s more, warmed up temperatures mean that the snow that does fall is melting weeks, even over a month early, in some locations.

The impact can already been seen in from the West Coast to interior Canada, where snow pack is melting 4 to 6 weeks early, prompting concerns of an oncoming drought. And, of course, there’s that record drought in California, too. The bulk of West Coast agriculture is so dependent on snow-fed irrigation that the entire industry is looking to alternatives. What’s worse, a lack of snow is leaving trees and vegetation everywhere from California to Alaska parched, leading to record forest fires that are burning more acreage than ever before.


Desert in the Mountains

If snow is the short-term storage of the cryosphere— scientist-speak for all things frozen— then glaciers are your super long-term storage. Glaciers have sculpted landscapes around the world, and for the most part, sit high up in the mountain, melting a little in the summer and re-freezing. But with the increased temperatures of climate change, they are melting at an alarming, and accelerating rate.

Take glaciers like Khumbu glacier high up on Mount Everest— you’d think that clinging to the highest mountain in the world would keep it cold enough. But now, it’s looking like a business-as-usual carbon emissions scenario will lead to the Himilayan region losing over 5,500 glaciers by 2100. And as all things water-related, that’ll lead to problems downstream, where over one billion people in the Asian region rely on glacier fed water for food, livelihood and hydropower. And it’s not just the Himilayas. From the Andes in South America, to the Alps of Europe, glaciers are melting and retreating at unprecedented rates, putting the pinch on water supplies and contributing to rising sea levels.

In fact, this is what has happened to glaciers in the Arctic between 1999 and 2014:


Some innovative ideas have been deployed to stave off the impacts of reduced glacial run-off, like building a giant block of ice in the wintertime to bank water for the springtime. But like many things with climate change, eliminating the risk of impacts in the first place will always be a better strategy than adaptation after the fact.

We know ice cream isn’t the same as snow and glaciers, but both need to stay frozen for us to get the biggest enjoyment and benefits from them. Making sure we don’t fry our wintertime water banks high up in the mountains is something President Obama himself has recently tuned into with his tour of Alaska. And it’s just one more reason we need to keep the pressure on for everyone, everywhere, switching to 100% renewable by 2050.