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Royal Geographical Society (with IBG): the heart of geography
Where in the world is the ice?
Why are our glaciers shrinking?
Living with glaciers
What landforms of erosion will disappearing ice reveal?
How will melting glaciers affect people living in the UK?
How will melting glaciers affect people living in other countries?

Glacial environmentsGlacial environments - Living with glaciers

This lesson investigates the opportunities and challenges for people that live close by or visit glaciers as tourists.

Key questions

  • What is the difference between a hazard and a resource?
  • How have people and ecosystems adapted to a hazardous life in glacial conditions?
  • What opportunities do glaciers bring for people?
  • Why are ski resorts under threat?
  • Why are they wrapping the Gurschen glacier in plastic?

Key concepts

  • Place
  • Space
  • Interdependence
  • Physical Processes
  • Environmental interaction

What is the difference between a hazard and a resource?

When people can use physical geography to help them, we say that we have found a resource. However, when physical geography harms us, we call it a hazard. Examples for discussion include:

  • Rivers (they bring floods, but also useful in countless ways)
  • Coastlines (the risks of floods and erosion are countered by economic benefits)
  • Volcanoes (they are dangerous yet provide opportunities for tourism and farming)
  • Windy or stormy conditions (they destroy property but also power wind turbines - thus being a good example of a sustainable and renewable resource)

How do glaciers function as both hazard and resource?

How have people and ecosystems adapted to a hazardous life in glacial conditions?

Glacial regions bring a range of avalanching and climatic hazards. Deep ice brings the hazard of dangerous deep crevasses (in parts of Antarctica, the sheet of ice is nearly five kilometres deep).

Climatic conditions are hazardous without adaptations and technology:

  • Coldest temperature ever recorded. The coldest temperature ever recorded is -81ºC in Yukon, Canada. Antarctica has a recorded low of -67ºC
  • Darkest cold place. Alert Bay, on the northeast coast of Canada is located at 82 degrees north. It receives no sun for 50 days a year

Animals and plants have adapted to life in various ways:

  • White fur as camouflage. Some animals, like polar bears and snow hairs, have evolved white fur so that they cannot easily be seen against winter snow. This helps them hunt, or else helps them hide from hunters
  • Caribou have two layers of fur. The caribou is a type of deer whose fur helps it to survive the bitter cold in icy regions

People have also adapted to life in polar and glacial regions in different ways:

  • Housing. High-pitched steep roofs allow snow to slide off, while triple-glazed windows keep the cold at bay. In areas of permafrost (frozen ground), houses are raised on stilts
  • Clothing. Traditionally, people living in Arctic regions favoured coats made of caribou skin and sealskin boots. Goose down was used as a lining. Now they also wear modern man-made textiles
  • Hunting. Native Alaskans have always relied on hunting and fishing for food rather than farming of the land. This is because of the frozen ground and short growing season for crops
  • Industry. In the North Slope of Alaska, large oil fields are found. Commercial fishing takes place offshore. In many cold places, skiing and snowboarding tourism takes place

What opportunities do glaciers bring for people?

Glacial meltwater - especially from the Himalayas - plays a vital role in providing water supplies for people. Indeed, threatened water supplies in Asia give climate change experts their greatest cause for concern. Half of the world's population lives in this region. Major rivers in China, India and Vietnam are fed by seasonal melting of Himalayan glaciers. Every summer, icy water pours off the Tibetan plateau. Flows from this massive hydrological store feed the Yellow River, the Mekong and other major rivers.

As long as new glacier ice accumulates each winter, cities and ecosystems in the region are guaranteed a sustainable water supply. However, a much warmer climate would lead to permanent melting and ultimately the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers. Billions of people would experience severely reduced water supplies.

Referring back to earlier lessons (where the glacial system was examined), students should come to a clear understanding that summer melt-water flows are part of the normal functioning of a glacier and are replaced each winter by new snowfall under normal conditions - and this must not be confused with the long-term and potentially irreversible melting that climate change may bring. Once the ice has gone altogether, experts fear that there will be no fresh meltwater to feed rivers.

Why are ski resorts under threat?

Skiing is vital to Alpine economies, and yet glacial snouts are increasingly mapped as retreating up-valley in Switzerland and elsewhere. Many ski resorts are threatened by climate change.

Rock falls are also becoming more common in Alpine glaciers as climate warms and ice thins, causing mountainsides to collapse. This has been reported as a particular concern for the Matterhorn.

Why are they wrapping the Gurschen glacier in plastic?

Global warming has meant that since 1850 the Swiss Alps have lost more than 1,000 glaciers, and geographers at Zurich University predict that within 30 years, 70% of the remaining glaciers in Switzerland may have disappeared.

The Gurschen glacier, near Andermatt, has lost around 20 metres of ice since 1990. To prevent further melting of this glacier, a revolutionary technique has been adopted. At the end of the ski season, over 3,000 square feet of the glacier is covered in insulating re-usable PVC foam. It is hoped that this will protect the surface layers of the glacier from heat and rain during the summer months, thus preventing further melting.

Swiss scientists hope that the PVC foam will mimic the natural effect of rock debris which falls from the steep valley sides onto the glacier and acts as an insulating blanket, protecting the glacier from the sun's rays and reducing melting.

After one year, the technique had reduced the melting of the Gurschen glacier by one third. However, it is extremely expensive and cannot be sustained. The solution is to address the causes of global warming, rather than its effects.

Downloads

Dots

Starter

What is the difference between a hazard and a resource?

Take a look at the hazards and resources PowerPoint (PPT) presentation. It will explain to you the difference between hazards and resources, and you will have the opportunity to discuss with your class whether various geographical features (including glaciers) are hazards or resources - or both.

Dots

Main

How have people and ecosystems adapted to a hazardous life in glacial environments?

The living with glaciers PowerPoint presentation gives you an idea of some of the hazards and challenges faced by people who live in glacial environments.

When you have watched the presentation, download the glacial hazards and resources document which gives you some more information. There are also some activities to complete, looking at the advantages and disadvantages of living in glacial environments - places such as Iceland and Alaska.

Why are ski resorts under threat?

Read the first two pages of the melting mountains article, which is about the threats to ski resorts in the Alps.

Why is skiing so important to people and places in the Alps?
Why is skiing in the Alps under threat?

Imagine that you are work in the tourist industry in the Alps. Because skiing is under threat, you will have to think of another way to attract visitors to the Alps. This is called ‘rebranding'.

Write a list of all of your ideas.

Now, in groups of four, pick the best idea and design a leaflet, poster or advertising campaign that could be used to attract a new type of tourist to the Alps.

Share your final product with the rest of the class and vote on the best overall idea.

Dots

Plenary

Why are they wrapping the Gurschen glacier in plastic?

Now look at the final page of the Melting Mountains document you used in the last task. Managers of a ski resort in Switzerland have taken drastic measures to stop further melting of the Gurschen glacier - by wrapping it in plastic.

When you have read the article, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this method in a small group or with the rest of your class.

Do you think this method could become widespread in the battle to save our glaciers?
Give reasons for your answer.

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