Polar Ice Caps and Glaciers Explained: Their Role in Climate Change

Climate Real Talk Team

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Polar Ice Caps and Glaciers Explained like I am talking to a Kid

Imagine you have a giant tray filled with water and you put it in your freezer. After a while, it turns into a sheet of ice, right? That’s similar to polar ice caps! They are huge areas of ice floating on the sea at the very top and very bottom of our Earth, at the North and South poles.

Now, picture making a snowball. You start small, but as you roll it around in more snow, it gets bigger and bigger. That’s like a glacier! Glaciers are huge chunks of ice and snow that build up on land over many years, usually on mountains or near the poles.

The main difference between them is where they are. Polar ice caps are found on the sea, while glaciers are on land. And when they melt, glaciers can cause the sea level to rise because the water they were holding on land now flows into the sea. Polar ice caps, since they’re already in the sea, don’t make the sea level rise when they melt.

Polar Ice Caps and Glaciers explained

Introduction to Polar Ice Caps and Glaciers

There is often confusion about the terms “polar ice caps” and “glaciers,” with many assuming they are synonymous or struggling to distinguish between them. It’s essential to clarify that while they both fall under the broader umbrella of Earth’s cryosphere (regions of the world where water is frozen), they possess distinct properties and formations. Both these entities also play a critical role in our global climate system.

Scientists consider these ice bodies as a kind of thermal shield for the Earth. The bright white surfaces of the polar ice caps and glaciers reflect a substantial amount of solar radiation back into space, helping to maintain the planet’s temperature equilibrium. This is often referred to in academics as the energy balance of the earth.

This phenomenon is particularly prominent in the Arctic region, which remains colder than the equator due to a higher proportion of sunlight being reflected back into space.

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Unravelling the Nature of Polar Ice Caps

Polar ice caps, also known as ice floes, are primarily formed from frozen seawater. In calm conditions, a slurry of ice crystals known as frazil coalesce to form sheets, which continue to expand through a bottom-freezing process called congelation. However, in more turbulent conditions, frazil crystals clump into rounded shapes resembling pancakes. As these formations grow, they thicken and pile on top of each other, eventually forming ice floes.

The Arctic and Antarctic oceans differ in the structure and lifecycle of their ice floes, despite both being part of the same planet earth. Ice caps and ice fields exist across the globe, with those in high-latitude areas often referred to as polar ice caps. The composition of polar ice caps varies across planets – Earth’s polar ice caps are largely water-based ice, whereas, on Mars, they are a combination of water ice and solid carbon dioxide.

Shedding Light on Glaciers

Glaciers form through the recrystallization of snow or other forms of solid precipitation, which accumulate and compact into ice over many years without completely melting. The rate at which snow transforms into glacial ice depends on several factors, including temperature and moisture levels. Glaciers can also increase in size by refreezing meltwater at their base.

While glaciers are primarily fed by snowfall, their growth can also be spurred by the freezing of rain, hail, hoarfrost, and rime. In some cases, avalanches may contribute to the glacier’s accumulation of snow. Glaciers, or ice sheets, can be found in the Arctic, Antarctica, and high mountainous regions, even in tropical zones.

Significantly large glaciers, such as those covering vast land masses like Antarctica or Greenland, are referred to as ice sheets. In contrast, smaller versions of these formations are called ice caps. Glaciers confined to valleys, dictating their movement, are termed mountain glaciers. Those spreading on flat ground at the foot of a glaciated region are known as Piedmont glaciers, and those extending from a glaciated area into the ocean are classified as ice shelves.

Delineating Differences between Polar Ice Caps and Glaciers

Despite their similarities, polar ice caps and glaciers have unique characteristics and behave differently. Polar ice caps form and melt strictly in the ocean, while glaciers form on land. Icebergs, which are chunks of glacial ice, calve off from ice sheets and fall into the ocean.

When glaciers melt, the runoff, initially stored on land, adds to the volume of the oceans, contributing to a rise in sea levels. The melting of polar ice caps, however, is often likened to ice cubes melting in a glass of water – the melting doesn’t directly change the water level in the glass. Yet, the melting Arctic sea ice triggers other damaging consequences, from the loss of hunting grounds for walruses (See image below) and polar bears to shifts in global weather patterns.

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Image of a Walrus

Image of a Walrus

The Influence of Polar Ice Caps and Glaciers on Climate Change

Despite the vast majority of humans not living in polar regions and seldom interacting with polar ice caps or glaciers, the snow and ice in Earth’s cryosphere have a profound effect on global climate systems.

The interconnected nature of the Earth’s system means that what happens in the cryosphere doesn’t stay in the cryosphere – it impacts the entire planet. Climate change, as a result of rising temperatures, accelerates ice melt, predominantly in the Arctic and Antarctic. However, the planet overall is impacted by these changes as they contribute to the dynamics of the global climate system.

Scientists continue to study how Earth’s frozen regions influence the pace of climate change. Some of the most critical impacts of the melting Polar Ice Caps and Glaciers (cryosphere) include the following:

1. Increased Warming Due to Melting Ice

When sunlight hits snow and ice, approximately 90% of it is reflected back into space. However, as global warming causes more snow and ice to melt each summer, the previously covered land or ocean surface absorbs more sunlight due to its darker colour. The absorbed heat is then released into the atmosphere, leading to increased warming and a further reduction in ice cover. This positive feedback loop accelerates global warming.

2. Rising Sea Levels from Melting Ice

Rising Sea Levels from Melting glacier

Sea levels have been rising at a rate of approximately 3.6 millimetres per year as the Earth warms. Melting glaciers and ice sheets contribute to this rise by adding water to the oceans that were previously stored on land. Some glaciers and ice sheets are particularly vulnerable to climate change, leading to instability, accelerated movement towards the sea, and the discharge of more ice into the ocean.

3. Release of Greenhouse Gases from Melting Permafrost

Permafrost is any ground that remains completely frozen—32°F (0°C) or colder—for at least two years straight.

The Arctic permafrost stores significant amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. As permafrost thaws due to global warming, this methane is released, further increasing the rate of warming. This positive feedback loop could potentially hasten the rate of global warming and result in more dire climate change predictions becoming reality.

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4. Loss of Biodiversity

The melting of Polar Ice Caps and Glaciers can lead to the extinction of numerous species as glaciers are the natural habitat of various terrestrial and aquatic creatures. As these habitats disappear, the species that depend on them struggle to survive.

5. Changes in Wildlife Migration Patterns

Reduced sea ice and melting permafrost have grave implications for wildlife species like polar bears, walruses, Arctic foxes, snowy owls, and reindeer, all of which rely on these habitats for survival. As these animals are affected, so too are other species in the food chain, including humans.

6. Changes in Global Temperatures

The polar regions serve as Earth’s refrigerators. With their white snow and ice surfaces reflecting heat back into space, they help regulate temperatures in other areas of the planet that absorb heat. However, less ice means less reflected heat, resulting in more intense heatwaves worldwide but also more extreme winters due to alterations in atmospheric circulation patterns. This is a direct consequence of the melting Polar Ice Caps and Glaciers,

7. Reduction in Freshwater Availability

The disappearance of glaciers also signals a reduction in available freshwater resources for human consumption, hydroelectric power generation, and agricultural irrigation. Glacial meltwater is a crucial water source for many communities, and its diminishing availability poses serious challenges.


In summary, while polar ice caps and glaciers are different types of ice formations, their transformations and responses to climate change have profound implications for the planet. As our climate continues to warm, the repercussions of these melting ice bodies on global sea-level rise, biodiversity, weather patterns, and freshwater availability will be critical areas of ongoing study and concern.

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