Juneau Icefield Glaciers Melting Faster Than Predicted, Study Finds

Juneau Icefield glacier melt

A recent study from Newcastle University reveals that glaciers in the Juneau Icefield of southeastern Alaska are melting at an alarming rate, potentially reaching an irreversible tipping point sooner than previously anticipated. The icefield, located north of Alaska’s capital, Juneau, has seen rapid glacier loss since 2010, which could contribute significantly to rising sea levels and threaten coastal settlements worldwide.

Published in Nature Communications, the study indicates that the Juneau Icefield’s volume shrank between 2010 and 2020 at twice the annual rate recorded from 1979 to 2010. Bethan Davies, senior lecturer at Newcastle University and lead author of the study, explained that the continued glacier thinning on the Juneau plateau and ice retreats to lower elevations set in motion feedback processes that likely prevent future glacier regrowth.

Researchers highlighted that every glacier in the Juneau Icefield mapped in 2019 had receded compared to their positions in 1770, with 108 glaciers disappearing entirely. The icefield, which spans about 1,500 square miles along the Alaska-Canada border, has lost nearly a quarter of its ice volume since 1770. However, the study did not specify when the icefield might completely vanish at the current rate of volume loss.

Davies emphasized the particular vulnerability of Alaskan icefields, which are predominantly flat, plateau icefields, to accelerated melting as the climate warms. Ice loss occurs across the entire surface, affecting a much larger area. Scientists have long warned that global warming, driven by greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuel industry, is eroding glaciers and ice sheets globally, thereby raising sea levels and threatening coastal cities.

As one of the world’s largest icefields, the Juneau Icefield’s accelerated melting could also impact similar icefields in Canada, Greenland, Norway, and other high-Arctic regions. Current projections suggest that the icefield’s volume loss will remain steady until 2040, accelerating again after 2070. However, the researchers suggest that these projections might need revision to reflect the new findings.

The study’s findings underscore the urgency for global climate action to mitigate the impacts of rapid ice melt and protect vulnerable coastal communities from the consequences of rising sea levels.