The Politics of Ice

By Krislyn Placide

July 17, 2015

Glaciers: The Politics of Ice by Jorge Daniel Taillant

Glaciers: The Politics of Ice by Jorge Daniel Taillant

When we think of glaciers, we think of massive ice bodies at the poles of the planet, majestic but distant from our daily lives. Here's the thing: Glaciers aren't just at the poles. They’re on almost every continent. They exist in places where you might not expect them, from Kenya to Las Vegas.

In Glaciers: The Politics of Ice, Jorge Daniel Taillant explains that only 2 to 3 percent of the earth's water is safe to drink—and 75 percent of that water is stored in glaciers.  As snow falls, it compacts into ice, increasing glacial mass. In warmer months, the ice slowly melts, releasing freshwater that people living downstream of the glaciers depend on.

The problem is that, with climate change, many glaciers are melting faster than they can recharge. Other causes of glacial vulnerability are atmospheric contamination and industrial impacts such as drilling and removing parts of glaciers, and even building roads through them.

“Without glaciers, many of our rivers risk becoming ‘seasonal’ rivers that will only provide water during parts of the year,” Taillant says.

The world's first national law protecting glaciers and periglacial environments was passed in Argentina in 2010. Environmental activists and conservation-minded officials faced private and federal mining interests in a heated battle for control of the glaciers, and—to their surprise—they won. Sadly, though, few nations have followed Argentina's lead.

Taillant suggests that in addition to enacting laws establishing glaciers as a public good, we can improve their health. He cites cases in which people have been able to preserve ice with sawdust and large white tarps. Engineers are even proposing creating artificial glaciers to provide water for communities that need it. The more we know about glaciers, the more we can do to make sure they’re still around in the future. As Taillant writes, "We protect what we know, understand, and value."

Glaciers: The Politics of Ice by Jorge Daniel Taillant (Oxford University Press, 2015)


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