Polar Ice Caps
Only two planets in our solar system have polar ice caps – Earth and the planet Mars.
Earth has polar ice caps on the North and South Poles and they are composed of frozen water.
Mars has ice caps at both poles as well, but the Martian ice caps are mainly frozen carbon dioxide with some water.
On Earth the polar ice caps are an integral element in what makes the overall environment of the planet what it is.
One might think at first glance that “all that ice” way up in the middle of nowhere or way “down” in the middle of nowhere has little to do with what the weather is like in New York, London, Bejing or Rio de Janeiro.
However, every aspect of Earth’s environment is connected on a global scale. If major changes occur in any particular environmental zone of the planet, every other square mile of the planet will experience at least some kind of reaction. This is especially true of the polar ice caps.
Most of The Earth’s Fresh Water Is Locked In The Polar Ice Caps
Enormous amounts of water are confined in the form of polar ice.
In fact, 70% of the entire planet’s fresh water is freeze-locked in the polar ice caps. As the average temperature of the planet has clearly been warming in recent years, sea levels around the world have risen as a consequence.
Already, a number of island nations around the globe are seeing their landmasses vanish beneath the oceans. The island nations of Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and Maldives have already been seriously impacted.
Polar Ice Caps Melting
If polar ice continues to melt, the shorelines of all countries and landmasses will see beaches vanish, as well as billions upon billions of dollars in prime real estate recede beneath the waves.
But the melting of the polar ice caps is even more far reaching than the direct effect on sea levels. That’s because much of the melting water is transpired into the atmosphere, increasing the net amount of moisture in the air around the world. This in turn spawns greater amounts of rain, often massive flooding events, and possibly also more hurricanes and tropical storms.
Polar Ice Receding
As polar ice recedes, it exposes billions of tons of organic matter that has heretofore been frozen for tens of thousands of years. Once that biomass – mostly plant materials – is exposed to the air, it decays and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Polar Ice Caps Melting and Global Warming
So what you have is a kind of one-two punch that drives even more global warming. More carbon and more moisture in the atmosphere increase the planetary Greenhouse Effect.
It’s a vicious cycle – and the ultimate impact on the entire planet is yet to be clearly understood, although it doesn’t appear to be a net positive.
How much ice is locked in the polar ice caps?
Just how much ice is locked in the polar ice caps? On the Earth’s North Pole, for example, the ice can be an average of 3 to 4 meters thick, but there are ridges up to 20 meters thick. This ice covers an area of 9 to 12 million square kilometers.
The Greenland Ice sheet can be considered a part of the polar ice system, and that sheet covers some 1.7 million square kilometers. So what we’re talking about here is about 2.6 million cubic kilometers of ice.
The South Pole is covered with the Antarctic Ice Sheet and covered an area of 14.6 square kilometers of ice. This comprises from 25 to 30 million cubic kilometers of ice.
Why do the Ice Caps Stay Frozen?
Why do the poles of the Earth remain bitter cold and covered with ice year round? It’s because the angle at which the sun strikes these regions is always very indirect.
The sun never rises high enough directly over the poles to produce significant solar melting. So the only way for the polar ice to melt is when the entire average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere rises. (Although even the polar regions have short summer seasons where some limited melting occurs).
Polar Ice Caps Controversy
Keep in mind that controversy rages over whether the polar ice caps are melting due to natural causes or because of man-made activities, such as cars and factories pumping up the carbon levels in the atmosphere.
Some 12,000 years ago a great natural warming trend reduced the polar ice caps to an enormous degree, and very quickly.
But it’s also true that the vast majority of climate scientists today subscribe to man-made global warming as the cause of the polar ice caps. Agencies like NASA and NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) maintain an official position that polar ice melting is caused by human activity.