Why are melting ice caps and rising sea levels a problem?

3 Feb 2021
4 min read

 A warmer climate means warmer seas, and that has a devastating impact on people and the planet.

Scientists already knew that ice caps are melting and sea levels are rising at an increasing rate, but the latest research from the University of Leeds paints a particularly grim picture: ice across the planet is now melting at a record rate, in line with the worst-case scenarios of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

According to the paper, published in the journal The Cryosphere, about 28 trillion tonnes of ice was lost between 1994 and 2017 – that’s enough to put a sheet of ice 100 metres thick across the whole of the UK. The researchers found that about two-thirds of this ice loss was caused by the warming of the atmosphere, and a third by the warming of the seas.

This is extremely dire news for all of us on Earth. Here’s why.

Rising sea levels will lead to widespread flooding

The global average sea level has risen by about 7-8 inches since 1900 and as the planet warms further, it’s getting higher. Most major towns and cities were originally located near the sea for commerce reasons, and now they’re particularly vulnerable. Rising sea levels will have a catastrophic impact on coastal cities, low-lying communities and small island nations. The map on Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate website, Before the Flood – Sea Level Rise, can help you visualise how your local area will be affected by rising sea levels, and the results are shocking. Even with a one-metre rise – which is within estimates to occur this century – areas of Norfolk, Somerset and Yorkshire, are inundated with water. We all need to be prepared for flooding and the huge disruption and cost that will occur as a result.

Rising sea levels will lead to more devastating storms

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere on earth, and the sea ice there is declining by more than 10% every 10 years – the Arctic Ocean in summer could be ice free before 2050. As ice melts, darker patches of blue ocean start to emerge in place of white ice, which absorbs rather than reflects the sun’s heat. Reducing the effect that cools the poles – known as albedo – creates warmer air and sea temperatures and in turn disrupts normal patterns of ocean circulation and weakens the Gulf Stream that keeps our climate mild. This has been linked to collapse of fisheries in the Gulf of Maine and more destructive storms and hurricanes around the planet as well as the ‘Beast from the East’ – the phrase used to describe extremely cold and wintry conditions in the UK as a result of easterly winds from the near continent.

Higher sea levels mean that deadly and destructive storm surges will push farther inland than they once did, so areas that previously escaped the worst effects of hurricanes and storms are bearing the brunt of the damage they bring.

Melting ice caps will lead to an even more unsustainable food system

Increased heat waves and the unpredictability of weather patterns will cause serious damage to the crops on which food systems depend – this will mean higher prices and increased poverty for the most vulnerable. Also, as the rising sea creeps farther up the shore, there’s the risk it will seep into the freshwater sources in the ground that many coastal areas rely on for drinking water and growing food. Saltwater is unsafe to drink, and while it is possible to remove the salt from water, doing so is an expensive and complicated process.

Melting ice means wildlife will lose important habitats

When there’s less sea ice, animals that depend on it for survival must adapt or perish. Loss of ice and melting permafrost spells trouble for polar bears, walruses, arctic foxes, snowy owls, reindeer, and many other species. As they are affected, so too are the other species that depend on them, in addition to people. Wildlife and people are coming into more frequent contact – and often conflict – as wildlife encroach on Arctic communities, looking for refuge as their sea ice habitat disappears.  

Read more: How does climate change affect animals?

Melting ice caps and rising sea levels are just two of the consequences of climate change and left unchecked, they’ll only speed up the climate crisis. Arctic ice and permafrost – that’s ground that is permanently frozen – are stores of enormous amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas. If that permafrost thaws the methane will be released, thus increasing the rate of warming and in turn causing more melting and more methane release – the cycle will increase rapidly.

But it’s still not too late to do something about it. By keeping the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees we can help mitigate the worst effects of climate change and help to secure a safer future for everyone.

The bottom line

The latest research on the rate of ice loss is extremely disappointing. Urgent action is needed to prevent the very worst consequences of melting ice caps and rising sea levels. We can all play a part in achieving this by taking steps to limit our carbon emissions. Take a look at  One Home’s top ten tips for lots of ideas and inspiration for getting started.





The information in this article was correct at the time of writing and is provided for guidance only. Please see the full disclaimer in our terms and conditions.

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