Do glaciers affect people?

Today, glaciers often are tourist attractions in mountainous areas. But glaciers are also a natural resource, and people all over the world use the meltwater that glaciers produce.

Glaciers provide drinking water

People living in arid climates near mountains often rely on glacial melt for their water for part of the year. Many of the rivers coursing through China, India, and other parts of the Asian continent are fed largely by snowmelt from the Himalaya, but in late summer a significant part of riverflow comes from melting glaciers. In South America, residents of La Paz, Bolivia, rely on glacial melting from a nearby ice cap to provide water during the significant dry spells they sometimes experience.

Demand for glacier water has increased in other, perhaps less expected ways, too. Some beverage companies sell bottles of glacial meltwater, and ice cubes made of glacier ice are popular in some specialty drinks. In fact, a Chilean man was arrested in 2012 for stealing five tons of ice from the Jorge Montt Glacier. He had planned to sell the ice to restaurants in the capital, Santiago.

Glaciers irrigate crops

Over a thousand years ago, farmers in Asia knew that dark colors absorb solar energy. So they spread dark-colored materials such as soil and ashes over snow to promote melting, and this is how they watered their crops during dry periods. Chinese and Russian researchers tried something similar by sprinkling coal dust onto glaciers, hoping that the melting will provide water to the drought-stricken countries of India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The experiment proved to be too costly, and they have abandoned the idea. But in Ladakh, India, an engineer has successfully created several small, artificial glaciers to provide more water for crops and drinking during seasonal dry periods. These man-made glaciers are situated in areas to catch large amounts of water that would otherwise flow away, and will have temperatures low enough to freeze that water over the winter. Warm summer weather slowly melts these glaciers, releasing a steady supply of water.

In Switzerland's Rhone Valley, farmers have irrigated their crops for hundreds of years by channeling meltwater from glaciers to their fields.

Glaciers help generate hydroelectric power

Scientists and engineers in Norway, central Europe, Canada, New Zealand, and South America have worked together to tap into glacial resources, using electricity that has been generated in part by damming glacial meltwater.