The melting of Alaska’s Juneau icefield is happening at an alarming rate, with the area now shrinking 4.6 times faster than it was in the 1980s, according to a recent study. Researchers have been tracking snow levels in the nearly 1,500-square mile icy expanse since 1948, and they have observed a significant increase in melt rates over the past decade.

The flow of ice into water from the Juneau icefield now averages about 50,000 gallons every second, highlighting the rapid pace at which the glaciers are disappearing. Between 2005 and 2019, a total of 64 glaciers vanished, including the larger Antler glacier, which has completely melted away. This acceleration in melting has raised concerns among experts, with climatologist Brian Brettschneider warning of a potential “death spiral” for the thinning icefield.

The Arctic region is warming at a much faster rate than the rest of the globe, with Alaska experiencing a temperature increase of 2.6 degrees since 1980. The impact of this warming is evident in the dramatic changes observed in the Juneau icefield over the years. Glaciologist Bethan Davies attributes the accelerated melting to climate change, noting that shorter winters and longer summers are leading to increased melt and a longer melt season.

The shape of the Juneau icefield, which is rather flat, makes it particularly vulnerable to tipping points. As the snow line continues to move upward, large areas become more prone to melt, amplifying the warming-triggered melt process. While the complete melting of all the snow in the icefield would not have a significant impact on global sea levels, it would drastically transform the landscape of the region, which is a popular tourist destination.

The study of the Juneau icefield’s melting was made possible through a combination of satellite images, airplane overflights, historical local measurements, and archival photos. By piecing together these various sources of data, researchers were able to paint a comprehensive picture of the icefield’s decline over time. The findings of the study have been corroborated by several outside experts, who emphasize the urgent need for action to preserve the remaining ice.

Looking ahead, researchers like Mauri Pelto are concerned about the future of the Juneau icefield. With the current rate of melting, Pelto predicts that the icefield may reach a tipping point within the next 40 years, leading to irreversible changes in the landscape. The transformation of the Arctic region, including the melting of ice components like permafrost, sea ice, and land ice, poses significant challenges for communities that rely on these resources.

As the world grapples with the impacts of climate change, the rapid melting of the Juneau icefield serves as a stark reminder of the urgent need to address environmental issues. Without decisive action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of warming, the Arctic region and its unique ecosystems face an uncertain future.