What is the cryosphere?

The term ‘cryo’ comes from the Greek word ‘kryo’, meaning cold. The cryosphere is the frozen water part of the earth’s hydrological system.

Defining the Cryosphere

The cryosphere involves a series of elements: Snow + Sea Ice +Ocean + Frozen Ground + Rivers + Glaciers + Atmosphere = The Cryosphere

The absence of liquid water means that there is little vegetation, and those plant species which can survive tend to grow close to the ground and incredibly slowly.

The Arctic cryosphere is explored at SWIPA (Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic). The SWIPA website has been developed as part of AMAP (the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Project), a long term project to monitor change in the Arctic region. Increased warming as a result of climate change may affect the frozen regions of the cryosphere first, before the effects spread to other parts of the globe.

Cryosphere diagram
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SWIPA 2017 report

A 2017 report by SWIPA, summarised in the video below, suggests that the Arctic is becoming a warmer, wetter and more variable environment with implications for people, resources and ecosystems worldwide.

The report suggests that:

  • By as early as the late 2030s, the Arctic Ocean could be free of sea ice in the summer
  • By 2100, we should expect sea level rise of between 50 and 75 cm, although this may well be an underestimate
  • Changes in the Arctic could be linked to extreme weather events in mid-latitudes
  • Some species will benefit, for example the orca, which is extending its range into the new open water areas in the Arctic and is competing with the polar bear as a top predator.

The key message of the report is that human actions over the next 50 to 100 years will make a real difference to the extent of change in the cryosphere and beyond.

The 2011 BBC series ‘Frozen Planet’ raised awareness of the polar regions of the Earth. Scenes depicting the impacts of the loss of sea ice on polar bears and their ability to hunt were particularly memorable. Watch a clip of Frozen Planet.

The 2017 SWIPA report has highlighted further examples of the sort of changes that may take place within our lifetime. Explore the Snow, water, ice, permafrost section of this website to discover more.

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Find out more about the cryosphere

  • Human actions in areas far from the Arctic will determine the future response of the cryosphere to climate change. What sort of actions might these be?
  • Write a report on the effects of climate change and the response of the cryosphere to these changes on the people living in the Arctic and their environment.
  • Walt Meier from the University of Colorado has called the Arctic a ‘canary in a coalmine’. What does he mean by this?
  • Read the SWIPA report
  • Visit BBC’s Frozen Planet