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Properties of Matter

Properties of Matter

The Theme of Biology Meets Chemistry in Properties of Matter

Global warming: Melting Icecaps/Icebergs

Melting is the process of a solid becoming a liquid. Who would have thought such a simple physical change would have such huge environmental implications? We're not talking about melting cheese for a grilled cheese sandwich or melting chocolate for that fountain we bought on a late night infomercial. We're talking about melting on a much larger scale. We're talking about the melting of the polar icecaps.

Iceberg, right ahead. (Image from here.)

The polar ice caps are located in the high latitude region of the Earth like the North Pole, the Arctic, or similar types of places. They're basically a solid landmass covered by ice. Icebergs can be big or small and are found in a multitude of shapes. They key is in the ice.

All of the Earth's ice caps are formed from water alone. This is different from the ice caps on Mars. They're made of both water and carbon dioxide.5 Ice caps on both planets form due to their high elevations and lack of solar radiation: perfect conditions for ice formation. Sadly, Earth's ice caps have transformed over the last 12000 years. Our favorite frozen geoforms are melting.

I'm melting. (Image from here.)

Why are the ice caps melting? We can thank the good 'ole phenomenon of climate change. In a nutshell, the Earth is warming in part due to the increased release of methane gas, which is released from factories and automobiles. This is a warming gas.

Certain areas in Greenland and Antarctica are still abundant with ice caps due to increased snowfall, but icecaps are melting at an alarming rate overall. Most global warming experts say that during the latter part of the twenty-first century, the melting will speed up due to the greenhouse effect. The melting ice fills our oceans with liquid water at a high rate, which could cause tropical storms, flooding, and hurricanes during storm seasons, especially in coastal regions.

Hurricanes are a major concern after ice caps melt. (Image from here.)

It has been reported that the ice caps are melting so fast that the world's oceans are rising more than twice as fast as they were in the 1970s.6 Most experts believe this melting effect is also due in part to thermal water expansion.7 Studies have shown that the Thames River in London could rise by eight to thirty-five inches in just a few years. What this all means is we have to accommodate a lot more water and quickly. This is not necessarily an easy task.

All of this melting is thought to be directly related to humans and greenhouse gases. Things like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane gas are all contributing factors. The ocean is slowly warmed as a consequence. This warmer water flows underneath the ice shelves and begins to melt the ice caps from the bottom while the warmer air begins to warm the ice cap from the top.

The big question is: What can we do to prevent the ice caps from melting? There is no simple answer because it's a complicated situation at the center of a maze of political, economic, and social issues.

You can learn more about the melting polar ice caps here.

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