Randolph Glacier Inventory Maps Location and Size of All the World's Glaciers

May 06, 2014 04:19 PM EDT

The location and size of virtually all the world's glaciers has been mapped out by a team of geologists from University of Colorado Boulder and Trent University in Ontario, Canada.

The database, known as the Randolph Glacier Inventory, or RGI, holds the records of about 198,000 glaciers from around the world. The information within the RGI will help scientists calculate glacier volumes and melting rates as global temperatures and sea levels continue to rise.

Tad Pfeffer, a geologist with UC-Boulder and research leader, said that it's the world's small glaciers losing mass that contribute the most to global sea rise.

The RGI will provide scientists with critical information they can use for climate change research and glacier forecasting.

"This means that people can now do research that they simply could not do before," said geologist Graham Cogley of Trent University."It's now possible to conduct much more robust modeling for what might happen to these glaciers in the future."

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Pfeffer and Cogley are part of a team of 74 scientists from 18 countries who worked to compile the data for the RGI.

A paper detailing the database and the research that went into it is published in the Journal of Glaciology.

The total extent of glaciers indexed in the RGI is "roughly 280,000 square miles or 727,000 square kilometers - an area slightly larger than Texas or about the size of Germany, Denmark and Poland combined," the researchers said in a statement. Collectively, the glaciers in the RGI are believed to store 14 to 18 inches, or 350 to 470 millimeters, worth of sea rise.

While massive, the volume of the world's glaciers pales in comparison to the volume of water stored in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which account for more than 200 feet, or 63 meters, of sea rise.

"A lot of people think that the contribution of glaciers to sea rise is insignificant when compared with the big ice sheets," said Pfeffer. "But in the first several decades of the present century it is going to be this glacier reservoir that will be the primary contributor to sea rise. The real concern for city planners and coastal engineers will be in the coming decades, because 2100 is pretty far off to have to make meaningful decisions."

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