How is this happening and what can we do to stop it?
The issue is global climate change. Human-caused climate change is greatly decreasing the amount of snow and ice, especially in the Northern hemisphere. As temperatures increase, ice and snow melt increases, replacing reflective snow with heat absorbing dirt. This creates a positive feedback loop as a darker Earth absorbs more heat and increases global warming even more. The albedo is an important ecosystem services that the cryosphere provides.
As ice caps melt, an excess amount of water becomes available. No longer frozen and stored, this leads to a rise in sea level. If all the glaciers were to melt today the sea level would rise a reported 230 feet (NSIDC). When water melts it also expands. This is why the cryosphere is so important. It holds water much more efficiently than oceans and lakes. As we lose this efficient storage, we have a rise in sea level because of the ice melting, and also because as the water heats up it expands. A loss of these storage systems would also have negative effects on supporting ecosystem services as well. Snow and glacier melt provide water for agriculture and drinking water as well as recharging aquifers. This becomes increasingly important as water is consumed at higher and higher rates on a global level.
Many scientists are studying the changes currently going on in the Arctic. The melting of ice sheets and decrease in snow levels year after year can be plainly seen in figures such as the one below. It is no longer a question of whether or not loss of ice caps is an issue, it is how long do we have and what are we going to do.
What are we going to do? Snow and ice provide key ecosystem services that we currently ignore. One group is suggesting that we give Arctic sea ice an economic value. Do you think that will work? What value would you give the cryosphere? What other values other than ecosystem services do you think ice and snow have?
Increasing Earth's albedo by changing how we build is one viable option. This can be done with reforestation, decreasing the amount of pavement, and by installing reflective or white roofs. It is possible that this could help slow the loss of ice and snow, but it will not be enough if we continue living as we do.
Daily (2009) argues that we need to monitor and give value to ecosystems services so that the individuals, corporations, and governments that create the problem will pay the price of the damage. To do this she proposes the Natural Capital Project, which uses a value system for ecosystem services to aid in policy and decision making. This project uses stakeholder involvement to find realistic alternative scenarios for the future. Daily argues that first of all the science of ecosystem services needs to increase rapidly and that "ecosystem services must be explicitly and systematically integrated into the decision making by individuals, corporations, and governments"(Daily, 2009). Daily acknowledges that price alone will not completely solve the problem, but that it will help people stop discounting the future. You can read more about the Natural Capital project here.
This figure shows how the Natural Capital Project gives value to ecosystem services. It considers all the types of ecosystem services; provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting. This model also considers biodiversity of species and habitats.
Now that you know what the cryosphere is doing for you what are you going to do for it?
"Ecosystem Services of Arctic Sea Ice Need Urgent Economic Valuation." PRWeb. Vocus PRW, 3 June 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2012. <http://www.prweb.com/releases/2011/6/prweb8525893.htm>.
Daily, Gretchen C., Stephen Polasky, Joshua Goldstein, Peter M. Kareiva, Harold A. Mooney, Liba Pejchar, Taylor H. Ricketts, James Salzman, and Robert Shallenberger. "Ecosystem Services in Decision Making: Time to Deliver."Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 7.1 (2009): 21-28.
"Facts about glaciers." National Snow and Ice Data Center. Web. 21 Apr. 2012. <http://nsidc.org/cryosphere/glaciers/quickfacts.html>.
Guitarfreakg290. "Planet Earth Sigur Ros Glosoli." YouTube. YouTube, 16 Oct. 2007. Web. 18 Apr. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HqcjgJCDuw>.
"James Balog: Time-lapse Proof of Extreme Ice Loss." TED: Ideas worth Spreading. Web. 18 Apr. 2012.<http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/james_balog_time_lapse_proof_of_extreme_ice_loss.html>.
"Global Outlook for Ice and Snow." United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Web. 21 Apr. 2012. <http://www.unep.org/geo/geo_ice/>.