If you’ve never heard of the “cryosphere,” or, think that it’s an alien planet, you’re certainly not alone. But the cryosphere, or ice world, which includes glaciers, permafrost, ice caps and ice sheets, just to name a few, is very much a part of this world and plays a crucial role in how the whole Earth functions. Alarmingly, it is also most at risk from climate change.
A World Bank report released Sunday details how climate change is impacting five regions of the cryosphere — the Andes, Antarctica, Arctic, East African Highlands, and Himalayas. It suggests 14 steps that would help preserve the fragile frozen world, and bring tremendous public health benefits to millions. Interestingly, transitioning away from traditional cookstoves to cleaner cooking systems, would save the most lives, and in the near term help keep what should be frozen, frozen.
According to the report, most of the cryosphere is threatened in decades, not centuries. The average temperature has risen at over twice the global mean in the Arctic, Antarctic Peninsula, and much of the Himalayas and other mountain regions. The glaciers of east Africa, for example, have lost 90 percent of their mass in the last century. Because of how rapidly these areas are approaching the point of no return, combating short-lived, but extremely potent greenhouse gasses like methane and black carbon are the key to staving off big melts in the near term. Melting ice and thawing permafrost also accelerate global climate change, so saving the frozen places helps the planet long term.
Without ice to reflect sunlight back into space, and permafrost keeping methane locked in the ground, it will be all but impossible to keep global temperatures from soaring past the 2-degree Celsius increase that scientists think civilization may be able to cope with. Just the release of carbon stores in permafrost could contribute as much as 5-30 percent more carbon to the atmosphere by the end of this century if current cryosphere warming is not slowed.
The people whose lives will be saved and bettered by cutting methane and black carbon are alive today, not a future generation. According to the report, transitioning away from cooking stoves that burn wood and coal could save 1 million lives. Currently, four million people die every year from cook stove smoke. That’s more than the number that die from TB, HIV and malaria combined. Additionally, a 50-percent drop in open field and forest burning could result in 190,000 fewer deaths each year.
Since methane mixed with nitrogen oxide from diesel fuel forms ozone, and ozone in turn depresses crop growth, getting diesel vehicles in these areas up to EU standards could result in 16 million tons of additional food for a world facing a future of more intense droughts and extreme weather.