Morteratsch glacier (Alps). Courtesy of J. Alean, SwissEduc.
Receding Glaciers Require Urgent Responses
Kyetrak Glacier 1921. Location: Cho Oyu, 8201 m, Tibet Autonomous Region; Eastern Himalayas.
Elevation of Glacier: 4,907 – 5,883 m. Courtesy of Royal Geographical Society.
Kyetrak Glacier 2009; Photography 2009: Courtesy of Glacier Works.
Anthropocene: Aggressive exploitation of fossil fuels and other natural
resources has damaged the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we inhabit.
To give one example, some 1000 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other climatically
important "greenhouse" gases have been pumped into the atmosphere. As a result,
the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air now exceeds the highest levels of the
last 800,000 years. The climatic and ecological impacts of this human interference
with the Earth System are expected to last for many millennia, warranting a new name,
The Anthropocene, for the new "man-made" geologic epoch we are living in.
Glacier Retreat: Glaciers are shrinking in area worldwide, with the highest rates
documented at lower elevations. The widespread loss of glaciers, ice, and snow on the
mountains of tropical, temperate, and polar regions is some of the clearest evidence
we have for a change in the climate system, which is taking place on a global scale at a
rapid rate. Long-term measurement series indicate that the rate of mass loss has more
than doubled since the turn of the century. Melting mountain glaciers and snows have
contributed significantly to the sea level rise observed in the last century. Retreat of the
glaciers in the European Alps has been observed since the end of the ‘Little Ice Age'
(first part of the 19th century), but the pace of retreat has been much faster since the
1980s. The Alpine glaciers have already lost more than 50% of their mass. Thousands
of small glaciers in the Hindukush-Himalayan-Tibetan region continue to disintegrate,
a threat to local communities and the many more people farther away who depend
on mountain water resources. Robust scenario calculations clearly indicate that many
mountain ranges worldwide could lose major parts of their glaciers within the coming
The recent changes observed in glacial behaviour are due to a complex mix of causal
factors that include greenhouse gas forcing together with large scale emissions of
dark soot particles and dust in "brown clouds", and the associated changes in regional
atmospheric energy and moisture content, all of which result in significant warming at
higher altitudes, not least in the Himalayas.
Perspective on Past Changes: In response to the argument that "since the
Earth has experienced alternating cold periods (ice ages or glacials) and warm periods
(inter-glacials) during the past, today's climate and ice cover changes are entirely natural
events", we state:
The primary triggers for ice ages and inter-glacials are well understood to be changes in the
astronomical parameters related to the motion of our planet within the solar system and
natural feedback processes in the climate system. The time scales between these triggers are
in the range of 10,000 years or longer. By contrast, the observed human-induced changes
in carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases, and soot concentrations are taking place on
10-100 year timescales –at least a hundred times as fast. It is particularly worrying that
this release of global warming agents is occurring during an interglacial period when the
Earth was already at a natural temperature maximum.
Three Recommended Measures: Human-caused changes in the composition
of the air and air quality result in more than 2 million premature deaths worldwide
every year and threaten water and food security —especially among those "bottom 3
billion" people who are too poor to avail of the protections made possible by fossil
fuel use and industrialization. Since a sustainable future based on the continued extraction
of coal, oil and gas in the "business-as-usual mode" will not be possible because
of both resource depletion and environmental damages (as caused, e.g., by dangerous
sea level rise) we urge our societies to:
II. Specific Findings and Recommendations
Mountain glaciers are lethally vulnerable to ongoing climate change
Qori Kalis outlet glacier (the largest outlet glacier from the Quelccaya Ice Cap in the southern Andes of Peru).
Credit: Lonnie Thompson, Ohio State University
Anthropocene: A New Geological Epoch
The last two centuries have seen an unprecedented expansion of human population
and exploitation of Earth's resources. This expansion has caused increasingly negative
impacts on many components of the Earth System—on the air we breathe, the water
we drink, and the land we inhabit. Humanity is changing the climate system through
its emissions of greenhouse gases and heat-absorbing particulate pollution. Today's
atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, exceeds
all other maxima observed over the last 800,000 years. Vast transformations of the
land surface, including loss of forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other ecosystems, are
also causing climate change. In recognition of the fact that human activities are profoundly
altering these components of the Earth System, Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen
has given the name anthropocene to the new geological epoch we have created for
An expert group of scientists met under the auspices of the Pontifical Academy
of Sciences at the Casina Pio IV in the Vatican from 2 to 4 April 2011 to discuss the
fate of mountain glaciers in the Anthropocene and consider the responses required
to stabilize the climate change affecting them. This group's consensus statement is a
warning to humanity and a call for fast action—to mitigate global and regional warming,
to protect mountain glaciers and other vulnerable ecosystems, to assess national
and local climate risks, and to prepare to adapt to those climate impacts that cannot be
mitigated. The group also notes that another major anthropogenic risk to the climate
system is from the threat of nuclear war, which can be lessened by rapid and large
reductions in global nuclear arsenals.
The Earth Is Warming and the Impacts of
Climate Change Are Increasing
Warming of the Earth is unequivocal. Most of the observed increase in globally
averaged temperature since the mid-20th century is ‘very likely'—defined as more than
90% likely—to be the result of the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse
gas concentrations. This warming is occurring in spite of masking by cooling aerosol
particles—many of which are co-emitted by CO2-producing processes.
Some of the current and anticipated impacts of climate change include losses of
coral reefs, forests, wetlands, and other ecosystems; a rate of species extinction many
times faster than the historic average; and water and food shortages for many vulnerable
peoples. Increasing sea level rise and stronger storm surges threaten vulnerable
ecosystems and peoples, especially those in low-lying islands and coastal nations. The
loss of mountain glaciers discussed here threatens downstream populations, especially
during the dry season when glacial runoff is most needed.
The Earth's Glaciers Are Retreating:
Causes and Consequences
The widespread loss of ice and snow in the world's mountain glaciers is some of
the clearest evidence we have for global changes in the climate system. The present
losses of mountain glaciers cause more than 1 mm per year of sea level rise, or about
one-third of the observed rate. In the most recent part of the Anthropocene, much
of the reduction of glacier mass and length in tropical, temperate, and polar regions
results from the observed increases in greenhouse gases and the increases in sunlight-
absorbing particles such as soot, from inefficient combustion processes, and dust,
from land cover change.
As shown in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
extrapolations from mass change studies carried out on about 400 selected glaciers
worldwide indicate a present average annual thinning of about 0.7 m in water
equivalent. The equilibrium line between accumulation and ablation area of a glacier
has shifted upward by several hundred meters in most mountain ranges compared to
the mid–1970s. For many glaciers in lower mountain ranges, the snow line at the end
of summer is above the maximum altitude of the mountains, leaving them lethally
vulnerable to ongoing climate change. Glacier fragmentation is occurring in most
areas, leaving the resultant smaller glacier closer to disappearing altogether.
Glacier areas are observed to be shrinking worldwide, with the highest rates at lower
elevations. Large glaciers lose their tongues, leaving unstable moraines and fragilely
dammed lakes behind, such as Imja Lake in Nepal. Such fragile dams have been subject
to failure, causing outburst floods that ravage the already fragile infrastructure of poor
In Western North America, human disturbance is increasing the dust load from the
deserts of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin, which darkens and thus shortens the
snow season in the Colorado Rocky Mountains by 4–7 weeks. The dust particles also
add to atmospheric warming by absorbing sunlight. Elsewhere the widespread "brown
clouds" of black carbon from inefficient combustion could have a large impact in
regions such as the Himalayas. We have very limited—and in some cases no—energy
and mass balance studies that quantify the black carbon effects on snow and ice
in such remote mountain areas. The impacts that we do understand with detailed
measurements in the Western North America provide insight into the snow and glacier
responses in other similarly affected regions.
The amounts and rates of glacier mass loss differ by region, and so also do the
associated impacts on seasonal water availability in close-by valleys and neighbouring
lowlands. In regions with dry and warm seasons, such as Central Asia, mountains and
their glaciers and winter snows are like "water towers" that store water for millions
of people. Their behaviour can be deceptive. Glacial mass loss can cause an initial
temporary increase in runoff downstream from water that has been stored for a long
time, as has been observed in several basins, but runoff inevitably decreases as the
parent glaciers decrease further.
Mountain glaciers serve another critical function: they preserve detailed information
on past climate and the ability of glaciers to respond to different climate variables. This
makes glaciers powerful tools for understanding past and present climate dynamics.
The full potential of mountain glaciers as climate research tools is just beginning to be
realized. The additional research needed to reduce uncertainties, delineate governing
processes, and quantify regional impacts could have a big payoff. It is time we pay
more careful attention to mountain glaciers before their archives are lost forever.
Avoiding "Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference"
Requires Clear and Binding Climate Targets
The goal of a climate policy is to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at a level that
would prevent "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system" and
"allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, ensure that food production
is not threatened and enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner",
as laid down in Article 2 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The temperature guardrail for avoiding "dangerous anthropogenic interference" is
now proposed to be at 2° C warming (above the pre-industrial level), although many
scientists argue and many nations agree that 1.5° C is a safer upper limit. Scientific,
political, and economic considerations have contributed to the identification of this
threshold, which has been adopted by the international climate negotiations. The
Earth has already warmed by 0.75° C since 1900 AD, and might reach some 2° C by
the year 2100 AD, even if today's greenhouse gas concentrations are not increased
further and air pollution is curbed for humanitarian reasons. There is a risk that the
warming can well exceed 3° C if emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase
at present rates. Thus exceeding the 2° C climate target is a real and serious possibility.
Rapid Mitigation Is Required If Warming and
Associated Impacts Are to Be Limited
Understanding the causes of climate change, as well as its current and projected
impacts, presents society the opportunity to avoid unmanageable impacts through
mitigation and to manage unavoidable impacts through adaptation. The time to act
is now if society is to have a reasonable chance of staying below the 2° C guardrail.
Possible mitigation by reducing carbon dioxide emissions and expansion
of carbon sinks: CO2 is the largest single contributor to greenhouse warming. While
more than half of CO2 is absorbed by ocean and terrestrial sinks within a century,
approximately 20% remains in the atmosphere to cause warming for millennia. Every
effort must be made to cut CO2 direct emissions from fossil fuel burning, cut indirect
emissions by avoiding deforestation, and expand forests and other sinks, as fast as
possible to avoid the profoundly long warming and associated effects that CO2 causes.
Possible mitigation by reducing the emission of non-CO2 short-lived drivers:
The second part of an integrated mitigation strategy is to cut the climate forcers that
have short atmospheric lifetimes. These include black carbon soot, tropospheric ozone
and its precursor methane, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Black carbon (BC) and
tropospheric ozone strongly impact regional as well as global warming. Cutting the
short-lived climate forcers using existing technologies can reduce the rate of global
warming significantly by the latter half of this century, and the rate of Arctic warming
by two-thirds, provided CO2 is also cut.
Reducing local air pollutants can save about 2 million lives each year, increase
crop productivity, and repair the ability of plants to sequester carbon. Black carbon
management should be part of an integrated aerosol management strategy, to ensure
that BC warming is cut faster than the cooling from other aerosols. In many areas,
there is a real potential to reduce the BC and dust loading that accelerates glacier
and snow melt, by: reducing BC emissions from traditional cook stoves by replacing
them with energy efficient and less polluting cook stoves, trapping BC from diesel
combustion with filters, and restabilising desert surfaces and other soils to reduce their
HFCs are synthetic gases and are the fastest growing climate forcer in many countries.
The production and use of HFCs can be phased down under the Montreal Protocol
on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, while leaving the downstream
emissions of HFCs in the Kyoto Protocol. This would provide the equivalent of 100
gigatonnes of CO2 in mitigation by 2050 or earlier. The Montreal Protocol is widely
considered the world's best environmental treaty; it has already phased out 98% of
nearly 100 chemicals that are similar to HFCs, for a net of 135 gigatonnes of climate
mitigation between 1990 and 2010.
In sum, air pollution and climate change policies are still treated as if they were two
separate problems, when they actually represent the same scourge. Emission sources
for air pollutants and greenhouse gases coincide, and a combined policy strategy
reduces the cost of counteracting both these threats to human health and the well-
being of society. These mitigation strategies must be pursued simultaneously and as
aggressively as the dictates of science demand. Together they have the potential to
restore the climate system to a safe level, and reduce climate injustice. But time is
short. Warming and associated effects in the Earth System caused by the cumulative
CO2 emissions that remain in the atmosphere for millennia may soon become
Adaptation Must Begin Now
Because of the time lag between mitigation action and climate response, vulnerable
ecosystems and populations will face significant climate impacts and possibly unacceptable
risks even with ultimately successful mitigation. Therefore, in addition to
mitigation, adaptation must also start now and be pursued aggressively.
We cannot adapt to changes we cannot understand. Adaptation starts with
assessment. An international initiative to observe and model mountain systems and
their watersheds with high spatial resolution, realistic topography, and processes
appropriate to high altitudes is a prerequisite to strengthening regional and local
capacities to assess the natural and social impacts of climate change.
Glacier Measurements Need to Be Expanded and Improved
We need to characterize the critical climate and radiative forcings on mountain
glaciers and their corresponding responses that are not yet sufficiently understood.
Among these, we must improve our understanding of the regional differences in glacial
response around the globe in terms of the regional changes in climate and in absorbing
impurities. Our observations of the glacier volumes, precipitation, and respective
changes in mountain catchments are severely limited. This limits our ability to create
scenarios of future runoff. Our climate models cannot resolve the rough terrain of
mountainous regions and therefore poorly represent precipitation, temperature variations,
and capture of aerosol loading. Likewise, our modeling and monitoring of the
connections between the changes in an upstream glacierised water catchment to water
resources at the downstream basin scale are at the initial stages.
The remoteness and dangerous nature of work above 6000 m is one reason why we
have few detailed measurements, other than of glacier length and size, in high mountain
systems like the Himalayas and Andes. Current remote sensing technologies can
detect changes in glacier and snow extent, but do not quantify relative forcings or provide
important snow and ice properties, such as grain size, local impurities, and surface
liquid water content. However, airborne and space-borne imaging spectrometers will
soon allow us to make spatially comprehensive measurements of these surface properties.
Put in context by more extensive observations from large-scale field campaigns,
and in situ energy balance and mass balance measurements, imaging spectrometers will
be used to construct and validate the next generation of high resolution glacier mass
balance models. Quantitative observations are the key.
Geoengineering: Further Research and
International Assessment Are Required
Geoengineering is no substitute for climate change mitigation. There are
many questions that need to be answered about potential irreversibilities, and of
the disparities in regional impacts, for example, before geoengineering could be
responsibly considered. There has not been a dedicated international assessment of
geoengineering. Geoengineering needs a broadly representative, multi-stakeholder
assessment performed with the highest standards, based for example on the IPCC
model. The foundation for such an assessment has to be much broader with deeper
scientific study than there has been a chance to carry out thus far.
It may be prudent to consider geo-engineering if irreversible and catastrophic
climate impacts cannot be managed with mitigation and adaptation. A governance
system for balancing the risks and benefits of geoengineering, and a transparent,
broadly consultative consensus decision-making process to determine what risks are
acceptable must be developed before any action can be taken.
Individuals and Nations Have a Duty to Act Now
Humanity has created the Anthropocene era and must live with it. This requires a
new awareness of the risks human actions are having on the Earth and its systems,
including the mountain glaciers discussed here. It imposes a new duty to reduce these
risks. Failure to mitigate climate change will violate our duty to the vulnerable of the
Earth, including those dependent on the water supply of mountain glaciers, and those
facing rising sea level and stronger storm surges. Our duty includes the duty to help
vulnerable communities adapt to changes that cannot be mitigated. All nations must
ensure that their actions are strong enough and prompt enough to address the increasing
impacts and growing risk of climate change and to avoid catastrophic irreversible
We call on all people and nations to recognise the serious and potentially irreversible
impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse
gases and other pollutants, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other
land uses. We appeal to all nations to develop and implement, without delay, effective
and fair policies to reduce the causes and impacts of climate change on communities
and ecosystems, including mountain glaciers and their watersheds, aware that we
all live in the same home. By acting now, in the spirit of common but differentiated
responsibility, we accept our duty to one another and to the stewardship of a planet
blessed with the gift of life. We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this
planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink, as we are
aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us.
Ajai, L. Bengtsson, D. Breashears, P.J. Crutzen, S. Fuzzi, W. Haeberli, W.W. Immerzeel, G.
Kaser, C. Kennel, A. Kulkarni, R. Pachauri, T. H. Painter, J. Rabassa, V. Ramanathan, A.
Robock, C. Rubbia, L. Russell, M. Sánchez Sorondo, H.J. Schellnhuber, S. Sorooshian, T. F.
Stocker, L.G. Thompson, O.B. Toon, D. Zaelke
Working Group Co-chairs are underlined
For more information about the Pontifical Academies, see the following:
- Pontifical Academies, Vatican City.
- Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, Piazza della Minerva 74, Rome, Italy.
- Pontifical Academy for Life, Via della Conciliazione 1, Rome, Italy.
- Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Casina Pio IV, Vatican City.
- Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Casina Pio IV, Vatican City.
For more press reviews about the Vatican's "Anthropocene" report, see the following:
The Vatican takes on climate change: it's cheaper to fix now, Eric Bangeman, Ars Technica, 6 May 2011.
- Vatican working group calls for concrete steps to combat climate change, Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service, 9 May 2011.
- Vatican Issues Major Report on Science of Climate Change, Catholic Climate Covenant, 6 May 2011.
- Climate Change: Green Smoke Over The Vatican, Lauren Morello, ClimateWire, and Inquisition News, 7 May 2011.
- Climate Change: Vatican Enters the Fray, William Pentland, Forbes, 6 May 2011.