Glaciers have always grown and receded

This is just one of dozens of responses to common climate change denial arguments, which can all be found at How to Talk to a Climate Sceptic.


A few glaciers receding today is not proof of Global Warming, glaciers have grown and receded differently in many times and places.


Firstly, it is more than “a few glaciers” that are receding, it is a pervasive, sustained and accelerating global trend.  The National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) maintains a chart of global glacier mass balance, and for as far back as their data allows us to look, all but a few years have shown a loss in ice volume of subpolar and mountain glaciers.  Further, annual losses are increasing.

But no one claims that melting glaciers are proof of Global Warming. Proof is a mathematical concept. In climate science one needs to look at the balance of evidence and in that light, the above data is just one piece of evidence that is consistent with Global Warming.

So what do we find if we look to the other aspects of the cryosphere?.  It turns out what we find is lots more evidence that is indicative of world wide and sustained temperature increases:

And of course, this is all consistent with all the other evidence of warming that there is out there. Clearly we are dealing with much more than a few receding glaciers.

This is just one of dozens of responses to common climate change denial arguments, which can all be found at How to Talk to a Climate Sceptic.

“Glaciers have always grown and receded” was first published here, where you can still find the original comment thread. This updated version is also posted on the Grist website, where additional comments can be found, though the author, Coby Beck, does not monitor or respond there.

23 thoughts on “Glaciers have always grown and receded

  1. Nice graph. Too bad you’re cheating. Why not show the full data? Back to the 1700s? Our current retreat is nothing new in the context of the past two hundred years or so. The trend simply continues. So much for the big bad humans doing it.


  2. Duh, why don’t you provide us with this misssing data, back to the 1700’s? Because it does not exist of course. There is not enough global coverage prior to the 60’s to construct such a graph.


  3. Coby, that was the point, you are drawing a massive conclusion from a tiny shred of data. Bad. Unless someone can show evidence that glaciers do not retreat without interference this is not evidence of anything.

    As for me I believe this planet experienced an ice age, and all those glaciers retreated. Man had nothing to do with it; the planet is better off for it. Also true that some small villages rely on melting glaciers for their precious water. Melting glaciers is therefore good. If they retreat a lot then some villages have to move. Oh, well, they must have done that before, so here goes again.


  4. RS, I believe what I said was it is consistent with all the other evidence of warming, so no I did not draw a massive conclusion from a tiny shred of data. Please provide the quote you had in mind.

    As for the retreating ice age, check this article. That retreat ended 10-8000 years ago.


  5. If you conclude that a tiny shred of evidence is consistent with anything I believe you must give significant weight to that shred.

    As for the 10-8000 years ago, what caused that? Seems like growth and retreat has been happening for a long time. And whatever it was that caused the retreat, aren’t we pleased?


  6. The last glacial period ended because of a combination of orbital forcing, CO2 rising and albedo changes as ice sheets shrank.

    Yes, it was fabulous news for me, my apartment might still have been under 2 km of ice.


  7. Coby you consistently miss the point that the sea level 18,000 years ago was 400 feet below where it is today! With no human input, the sea level came to its present level (but for about 2-3 feet) about 3000 years ago.

    In other words, the sea level is about where it was 30,000 years ago, before the last ice age. Earth cooled, with no human input, then it warmed with no human input.



  8. In other words, the sea level is about where it was 30,000 years ago, before the last ice age. Earth cooled, with no human input, then it warmed with no human input.

    And, of course, before guns were invented, no one died of gunshot wounds, which proves that no one died from machine gun fire in WW I, WW II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq I, Iraq II …


  9. Come on dhogaza, i can accept a little drift off topic but for christs sake that is just c@#p. If you cant think of anything intelligent to say then say nothing at all.

    Anyway guns were invented before the wars of conquest you mentioned above so people could have died from gunshot wounds.

    Looks like that “itchin for a fight” needs to be scratched again, consider it scratched ok.


  10. re: Recent measurements by NASA have found that Greenland’s massive ice sheet has been losing nearly 100 gigatons of ice annually in recent years.

    How long would it take for all the Greenland ice to melt at this rate? My “back of a fag packet” calc came out at approx 22,000 years. But I suspect that must be wrong. Anyone?


  11. I don’t know but is that even the issue?

    As I understand it the problem of Greenland’s ice retreat is not the prospect of it all being gone but a whole *lot* of it being gone and the resultant effects on sea levels and the positive feedback of less snow reflecting sunlight back to space. Also Greenland’s ice sheet retreat is a gauge of where we are. I mean, Jesus, its melting. Regardless of where we stand on the overall AGW hypothesis, does anyone dispute it?


  12. Skip, thanks for your reply.

    I guess my question is “is there an issue”? 100 Gigatons sounds awfully impresive, however –

    100 Gigatons of ice melting is about 0.00452632% of the total Greenland ice sheet, which will put the sea levels up about 0.0003546 of a metre. (Someone please verify my figures).

    And the reduced reflectiveness of this small difference – does it amount to anything?

    BTW – I am agnostic regarding AGW, I’m just seeking answers to niggles I have. Thanks


  13. Those numbers sound about right – for the recent melt rate. Changing units, that’s 0.35 mm/y. Current annual sea level rise is almost 10 times that (about 3mm/y) but more than half is from the expansion of warming water, the rest is from Greenland, Antarctica and other glaciers around the world.

    Here’s the trouble with 0.3 mm/y from Greenland. A mere decade ago it was basically 0. See (particularly the second graph). That’s an accelerating loss. It’s accelerating for probably two reasons: (1) It’s still getting warmer (2) Greenland is a hollow basin, ringed by mountain ranges, filled with ice. As the outlet glaciers retreat, the area exposed to warming ocean water increases, so the basal melt rate increases, with positive feedback.

    So, while I certainly can’t guarantee it, the mass loss rate of Greenland could double in another decade, double again in the decade after that, etc. until leveling off at a rate that would melt the whole thing in ~500 years. That would contribute over 1m/century. A slightly different accelerating dynamic is affecting the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Taking all sources into account, we are likely looking at 1.4m sea level rise by 2100, with 2-3m/century for several centuries after that. That’s if we don’t get our act together on mitigation.

    1.4 meters is huge. It doesn’t seem that big if you live near a rocky shore, or don’t live near a shore at all, but the first 1 meter of sea level rise will wipe out half the agriculture in Bangladesh, and have similar effects on other low coastlines around the world. The population of Bangladesh is 160 million.


  14. You guys are so far scientifically over my head that it is impossible for me to participate in this conversation. But consider that most people are like me, stupid consumers. It might even be said from the contacts I have in daily life that most people are even below my abyssmal scientific comprehension level. We think about things like sports and fashion and entertainment and bills. The lame list goes on. But we vote, sometimes with disastrous results. Imagine trying to explain .0003546 meter sea level rise at a tea party meeting. The simple question I have is what I saw in an above headline. If it is so warm, why is it so damn cold, with record breaking snowfall in certain parts of the US right now. Nothing in the subsequent text answered the question, at least not on my level. And it seems to me that somebody MUST dumb down this conversation to communicate to the public. Right now I am freezing my tail in lower than normal temps in TX and worrying over the increase in my energy bill with my fixed income. I can only imagine what people in Baltimore are feeling. Also, how do you get disaster relief into an earthquake or tsunami affected area without producing large amounts of carbon exhaust?


  15. gsp,

    As a former teacher I think I can make understand the missing connection between daily experience and largely intangible scientific theory. And I think analogy, at the risk of creating new misunderstandings, can clear things up very well.

    Without taking time to look up specific figures, here are two things I’m confident can be said about our world that bear some resemblance to the situation you’re describing:

    (1) The value of the stock market is on a long-term upward trend. This is regardless of the fact that there have been huge momentary dips and dives, like this most recent recession and the years-long Great Depression. Living in that moment, it’s easy to assume that now is different, that the long-term trend isn’t still heading up, but any economist will tell you this will all recover and go back to that gradual upward slope as it did after the Great Depression and every other market slump.

    (2) The population of the earth is on a long-term upward trend. There is at least one point in history when the population decreased markedly over a period of a few decades: The Plague. Living in this time it would be easy to assume that everyone was going to die and the world would end. But on the whole, since thousands of years ago, the population is still rising. The long-term trend is still upward.

    Regarding climate change, then: scientists almost completely agree that until this last decade there has been a decades-long warming trend. They largely agree that this recent leveling-off of the trend is just one of those dips and dives, and that it will soon continue upward. They largely agree that if it continues that way, it will eventually have a profound negative effect on our ecosystem, which would affect our own habitat, health, food supply, land use, economy, and practically every other element of our lives. And they *generally* agree, with confidence (but not certainty), that man’s activity has some measurable effect on this.

    Therefore, the best guess is that it’s worth our effort to take strong steps to lessen our contribution to the long-term warming trend.

    A cold day or even year in one city, state, or even the whole globe, is just a blip on the radar. Scientists believe the forces driving temperatures slowly upward are still at work.

    How’s that, gsp?

    Keywords that often get lost in the debate and the media’s coverage of it: “generally agree,” “not certain,” “believe.” The scientific facts and measurements may be (at least mostly) accurate, but the theory based around them is just a theory. There’s simply enough evidence to make *most* scientists *pretty* sure that it’s the right one.


  16. A few glaciers receding today is not proof of Global Warming, glaciers have grown and receded differently in many times and places.


    Glaciers have always grown and receded

    TWO different questions. i like the way you smoothly changed one question into the other. that should certainly fool THE STUPID people. well done coby. keep blurring the issues.

    SUN go HOT , planet GO hot.
    sun GO cold, PLANET go COLD.

    quick get me some graph paper and let me draw lines , then i can call it MATHEMATICAL SCIENTIFIC CERTAINTY…………………………. oh wait scientisits make up data and tell lies.

    University of East Anglia emails: the most contentious quotes …23 Nov 2009 … Here are a selection of quotes from the emails stolen from computers at the University of East Anglia. Many involve Phil Jones, head of the ……/globalwarming/…/University-of-East-Anglia-emails-the-most-contentious-quotes.html – Similar


  17. I wonder what National Geographic explorer Eddie Kisfaludy would have reporter if he could have flew his helicopter over Glacier Bay back when Captain George Vancouver found Icy Strait, at the south end of Glacier Bay, choked with ice in 1794?
    Coby Beck; Don’t you think that glaciers would be retreating after the LIA ended?
    This applies to your dire warnings regarding melting glaciers. Keep in mind that Geo. Vancouver’s ships were wind powered; therefore, he wasn’t spewing out any diesel smoke to start this massive retreat of these glaciers.
    “The explorer Captain George Vancouver found Icy Strait, at the south end of Glacier Bay, choked with ice in 1794. Glacier Bay itself was almost entirely iced over. In 1879 naturalist John Muir found that the ice had retreated almost all the way up the bay. By 1916 the Grand Pacific Glacier was at the head of Tarr Inlet about 65 miles from Glacier Bay’s mouth. This is the fastest documented glacier retreat ever. Scientists are hoping to learn how glacial activity relates to climate changes and global warming from these retreating giants.

    Glacier Bay was first surveyed in detail in 1794 by a team from the H.M.S. Discovery, captained by George Vancouver. At the time the survey produced showed a mere indentation in the shoreline. That massive glacier was more than 4,000 feet thick in places, up to 20 miles wide, and extended more than 100 miles to the St. Elias mountain range.

    By 1879, however, naturalist John Muir discovered that the ice had retreated more than 30 miles forming an actual bay. By 1916, the Grand Pacific Glacier – the main glacier credited with carving the bay – had melted back 60 miles to the head of what is now Tarr Inlet.


  18. Hi John,

    I have to point out up front that the original post above is pretty much spot on as an answer to your question, which stripped of snark is pretty thin gruel. You are pitting the record of one glacier one hundred years ago to challenge the significance of the current “pervasive, sustained and accelerating global trend” (see above original post). You are also wanting to ignore the context of other changes in the cryosphere and global climate indicators.

    Much of your quoted material does not appear in the links you provide, and in fact the second is completely unrelated,but I am not interested in disputing the accuracy of the statements. I will note that you are silent on what has happened to that particular glacier since. Is it still retreating? Is the global temperature still just “recovering” from the Little Ice Age even as it rises to levels not seen since at least 5000 years ago? To understand global and modern trends you really need global and modern data.


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