8 Disappearing Glaciers on the Verge of Extinction

Aerial view of Matterhorn and surrounding snow-capped peaks
Melting glaciers are causing the Alps' iconic Matterhorn to slowly crumble. Nisian Hughes / Getty Images

For hundreds of thousands of years, large swaths of the planet have been covered in ice. Today, about 10% of the Earth's surface is frozen, but every year, that number gets a little smaller as temperatures continue to rise. Disappearing glaciers are a detrimental consequence—and now an ominous symbol—of the climate crisis. The United States Environmental Protection Agency says glaciers have been retreating globally since the '70s. This has caused, and will continue to cause, sea levels to rise, the Earth's surface to absorb more heat from the sun, and certain animal species to lose a habitat essential to their survival.

From Montana to Tanzania, the Andes to the Alps, here are 10 glaciers that have been hit by rising temperatures the hardest.

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Muir Glacier (Alaska)

Mount Muir with the Muir Glacier descending into the bay

USDA Forest Service Alaska Region / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Alaska contains 34,000 square miles of glacial ice that is now melting at twice the speed it melted during the '50s. And although that's less than 1% of the world's glaciers, the meltwater flowing from the state has accounted for a whopping 9% of global sea level rise in the past 50 years.

The astonishing recession of the massive Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park is just one example among dozens. In the 1940s, the glacier stretched over what is now a saltwater-filled inlet, standing an impressive 2,000 feet thick. Since, it has lost its tidewater terminus and retreated out of the field of view, causing the region's tourist numbers to plummet. Scarier, however, is the potential for Muir's retreat to spark a major earthquake. Researchers have found that exposed faults and rising land as a result of glacial retreat can cause earthquakes of 5.0 magnitude or higher.

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Himalayan Glaciers (South and East Asia)

View of the Gangotri glacier on Shivling peak
jaimukerji / Getty Images

Home to one of the planet's largest bodies of ice outside the polar caps, the Himalayas feed several of the world’s largest rivers, including the Indus, the Ganges, and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra. Ice melt is not only natural here, it is needed for the survival of up to two billion people, but the ice is now melting twice as fast as it was during the '80s and '90s, and that can cause deadly floods and changes to vital agricultural crops and energy production.

A landmark 2019 report found that a minimum of 36% of Himalayan glaciers will be gone by the year 2100—and that's if climate change is successfully curbed to the 1.5-degrees-Celsius-of-warming mark. If it isn't, the amount of ice lost could be more like 66%.

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Matterhorn Glacier (Switzerland)

Dramatic aerial view of the iconic Matterhorn peak above Zermatt, Switzerland

Didier Marti / Getty Images

Even Europe faces a major crisis with ice melt. About half the ice that once blanketed the Alps has disappeared since record-keeping began in the 1800s. By 2100, researchers say a staggering 90% of it could be gone. The iconic peak known as the Matterhorn plays host to one rapidly dwindling glacier on its north face. As the namesake ice sheet recedes from its exterior and permafrost melts at the mountain's core, the rock becomes soggy and unstable, which has caused entire portions of the Matterhorn to literally crumble. Because of this, the famous mountaineering feat every year becomes less climbable.

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Helheim Glacier (Greenland)

Aerial view of Helheim glacier from a NASA survey flight

Jim Yungel (NASA) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Satellite images of the Helheim Glacier, one of Greenland's largest outlet glaciers, from the '50s show that the mass of ice remained intact for decades before it suddenly began disappearing in 2000. By 2005, the glacier had retreated a total of 4.5 miles at an average rate of 110 feet per day. And although there have been bouts of readvancement over the years—a mile here, two miles there—Helheim has retreated yet another six miles since then.

Exacerbating the issue, retreating glaciers in Greenland have enabled dozens of new oil and gas exploration projects as vanishing ice makes room for heavy drilling equipment.

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Furtwängler Glacier (Tanzania)

Furtwängler glacier at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

ProfessorX / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain, is one of the last remaining examples of equatorial—or even near-equatorial—ice on the planet. Its summit was once covered by the Furtwängler Glacier; now, that glacier is receding so fast it's expected to disappear entirely by 2060. The glacier lost half its size between 1976 and 2000 (from 1,220,000 to 650,000 square feet), and in 2018, it measured a meager 120,000 square feet, a fifth of its size just 18 years prior.

Nearby, Mount Kenya has lost nearly all of its ice, threatening water supplies for millions of people. Experts now predict most African glaciers could be gone within decades.

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Andean Glaciers (Western South America)

Peru's famous Pastoruri Glacier bordering a bay

Maiquel Jantsch / Getty Images

Nearly all of the world's tropical glaciers are located in the Andes. About 70% of them are just in Peru. Naturally, millions of people who live in the highlands of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru rely on their meltwater, and it will be a huge problem when the primary source of their drinking water is gone. Take the Chacaltaya glacier, for instance: This was once one of the highest-altitude ski resorts on Earth, and it has completely vanished. A study on Bolivian glaciers in 1998 predicted its disappearance by 2015, a claim that at the time was dismissed. But by 2009—six years earlier than expected—it was official: the Chacaltaya glacier no longer existed.

Other retreating glaciers in the Andes include Peru's famous Pastoruri, which has lost half its size in just two decades, and the Quelccaya Ice Cap, the largest tropical ice cap in the world, expected to disappear entirely within the century.

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Glacier National Park (Montana)

Cracker Lake and surrounding mountains in Glacier National Park
Feng Wei Photography / Getty Images

Indeed, ice melt affects the contiguous U.S., too. In the area of Montana now known as Glacier National Park, an estimated 80 glaciers existed after the Little Ice Age, around the mid-19th century. Now, only 26 remain. The National Park Service says every single glacier in the park shrunk between 1966 and 2015, and some by more than 80%. Researchers believe that by the year 2030, the vast majority of ice in Glacier National Park will be gone unless current climate patterns are reversed.

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White Chuck Glacier (Washington)

Alpenglow on White Chuck Glacier and surrounding peaks

Martin Bravenboer / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The rapid retreat of Washington's White Chuck Glacier, located in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, began in 1930, the American Geophysical Union says. Between the mid-'50s and 2005, the glacier lost more than half its surface area, it had thinned dramatically, and one of three termini had disappeared. It no longer dominates the headwaters of the White Chuck River, as its summer contribution of water has decreased by a reported 1.5 billion gallons annually since 1950. The reduction in meltwater, combined with the natural warming of the water, has had a negative effect on salmon populations.