The Aleutian Islands stretch from southwestern Alaska toward far northeastern Russia. Extending southwest from the Alaskan Peninsula, the islands separate the Bering Sea from the greater Pacific Ocean. The political extent of the Aleutian Island range ends at Attu Island, and because of the International Date Line, Attu Island represents both the westernmost and the easternmost possession of the United States. The Russian Commander Islands make up the final section of the archipelago.
The islands are the product of seismic and volcanic activity and many reach elevations as high as 9,000 feet. Due to their high latitude and high altitudes, the archipelago contains a large number of glaciers. The islands are home to the Aleut people who have lived on the islands for over 8,000 years.
Glaciers play at least three different roles at COP20, the global climate conference taking place in Lima, Peru. The COP20 is the largest meeting this year of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international environmental treaty aimed at stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The 192 member countries of the UNFCCC meet annually in Conferences of the Parties (COP) to assess progress in dealing with climate change. COP20 is a lead-up to 2015 COP21 in France, whose objective is the signing of a legally binding agreement that would guarantee significant reductions in greenhouse gasses.
Most simply, glaciers are cited in newspaper articles, NGO statements, briefings by research institutes and reports by intergovernmental organizations as incontrovertible proof that climate change is producing dramatic impacts on ecosystems and societies around the world. They are featured in displays that seek to convey the urgency of addressing climate change, particularly in the Mountains and Water Pavilion within “Voces por el Clima,” (Voices Speaking for Climate) an exhibition that calls for greater attention to climate change.
Glaciers also play a critical role in specific countries with major roles at COP20. Host country Peru contains about 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers. The glaciers are crucial to Peru, because they supply drinking water and water for agriculture, hydroelectricity and industry, such as agro-exports and mining.
Glaciers are also important in China and the United States, the countries whose agreement on climate change, announced on November 11, provided significant impetus to COP20. These countries are the world’s No.1 and No.2 carbon polluters. Presidents Xi and Obama staked out ambitious plans to reduce carbon emissions as a way to galvanize other countries to make their own cuts. Mr. Obama announced that the United States plans to emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. That is double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020. At the same time, Mr. Xi announced vowed that clean energy sources like solar power and wind mills would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.
Both China and the United States have numerous glaciers. China’s glaciers, concentrated in the western and northern parts of the country, cover nearly 60,000 square kilometers. In the United States, glaciers, primarily located in Alaska, cover over 75,000 square kilometers). They are rapidly shrinking in both countries, and also in France, the host of COP21 next year, where Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, has seen significant glacier loss in recent decades.
Finally, glaciers are specifically featured in two events at COP20, both on December 11th. A presentation by a Pakistani organization, the Moutain and Glacier Protection Organization (MGPO), and its partners, “Integrated Climate Risk Management for a Resilient World reports on adaptation projects near Baltoro Glacier in Pakistan. The event also includes lectures by the Ministers of Environment of the Netherlands and Tuvalu, concentrating on climate change and disasters in mountains, and their impacts on highland, lowland and coastal areas.
The other event is “Climate Change in the Andes and Global Cryosphere,” organized by two NGOs, ICCI (International Cryosphere Climate Initiative) and CPC (Climate Policy Center). They focus on the irreversibility of changes in glaciers and other ice- and snow-covered regions. Their discussions will center on tracing the implications of these changes for science-based commitment levels in the Paris 2015 COP.
Taken as a whole, these different documents and activities show the power of glaciers to demonstrate the significance of climate change and to stir people to action. GlacierHub is tracking COP20 closely. You can find photos from the conference here. If you are interested in keeping up with events at COP20, follow us on twitter @Glacierhub.