What is the Cryosphere? Where is it Located, Facts and More

What is the Cryosphere?  Where is it Located, Facts and More
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Many who are unfamiliar with the cryosphere are interested to know what it is. Places on our Earth that are frozen and formed of snow or ice due to very cold temperatures make up what is known as the cryosphere. The cryosphere consists of sea ice and land ice or continental ice. These cold or frozen areas of Earth influence the climate of the entire world. The cryosphere is also central to the everyday lives of plants, animals, and humans that call it home.

Where is the Cryosphere Located?

The cryosphere is comprised of regions in which water takes on solid form due to cold temperatures, essentially freezing water into ice. While areas around the Arctic and North Pole, and areas around the Antarctic and South Pole are part of the cryosphere, there are other places on Earth considered to be part of the cryosphere too. The Arctic is covered by the Arctic ocean, a very cold ocean. During the winter months, the sea ice grows and then shrinks again during the summer months. The Arctic ocean is ringed with permafrost and other frozen ground. Nearby land is covered with snow, ice, and glaciers. Greenland is also covered with a thick sheet of ice and snow.

Antarctica is a continent covered with a large sheet of ice. Floating ice shelves go into the ocean. Like the Arctic, icebergs form from ice sections breaking off and making their way into the ocean. As these icebergs float into warmer waters, they fall apart and melt.

Between the Arctic and Antarctica lie other cryosphere regions at higher elevations. such as Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro. Mountains in northern Canada and in the United States can also have frozen soil at high elevations. Permafrost can also develop at high elevations like the mountains of Russia and China. During the winter months when temperatures are naturally colder, the cryosphere extends into areas where rivers, lakes, and soil typically freeze and where snow covers the ground.

What Will I Find Within the Cryosphere?

The cryosphere consists of several key elements, including ice, snow, sea ice, ice shelves, frozen ground, glaciers, and icebergs. Snow or ice can be present, but both are in many cryosphere areas. The other elements are typically present as well, however, not always.


Snow is a form of precipitation consisting of ice crystals. When high humidity and cold temperatures come together in the atmosphere, snow

What is the Cryosphere

crystals develop. These crystals will become snow that will fall to the Earth as long as the air temperature stays below freezing. Snow facts:

  • Snow occurs throughout the world, including at high elevations and near the equator.
  • Snow gives some plants and animals a habitat to live and thrive in.
  • Snow affects the climate of Earth by reflecting sunlight.
  • Snow provides water for plants, animals, and people throughout the world


When water becomes a solid and temperatures go below freezing, ice forms. Ice is necessary for the formation of glaciers, ice shelves, frozen

What is the Cryosphere

ground, sea ice, and icebergs. Ice facts:

  • Ice is present throughout the world, but is most often found at high elevations, high latitudes, or during the night when temperatures tend to be cooler.
  • Ice provides water for plants, animals, and people around the world.
  • Ice can provide scientists with important information about Earth’s past climate via ice cores
  • If temperatures continue to warm and climate continues to change, ice may not be as common in lakes, rivers, and oceans.
  • Ice can become so thick in oceans and on lakes that icebreakers (a special type of ship) are necessary to create a path.


Glaciers are thick masses of ice located on land. Many seasons of snowfall have contributed to the ice buildup. Glaciers move

What is the Cryosphere

very slowly downhill. For a glacier to form, large masses of ice are necessary. A glacier forms through hexagonal snowflakes accumulating to a specific thickness. Under high pressure, snowballs are shaped from the snowflakes. Old snow is packed down as new snow falls. A mass of solid ice is then created. An area for the ice is created through the ice melting and then refreezing. The ice at the bottom starts to slowly move and creates plasticity as the ice builds up to approximately 100 meters. A glacier is then formed. It typically takes 100 years or more for a glacier to form.

Glacier facts:

  • Glaciers cover about 10% of the land on Earth.
  • Glaciers sometimes appear pink due to algae living in the uppermost layers of ice and snow.
  • Glaciers carve landscapes and change the land they drift through due to their weight.
  • Due to climate change, glaciers are smaller today than they were in the past.
  • 75% of the freshwater on Earth is stored in glaciers therefore supplying water to people throughout the world.

Ice Shelves and Icebergs

Ice shelves are best defined as platforms of ice that develop when glaciers and ice sheets float out into the oceans. Ice shelves are found

What is the Cryosphere

mostly in Greenland and Antarctica, as well as near Alaska and Canada and the Arctic. Icebergs consist of ice chunks that break off of ice shelves and glaciers and float in the oceans. Ice shelf and iceberg facts:

  • Both of these, when they initially leave land and float off into the water, raise sea level, but when they melt within water, sea level does not raise.
  • Both provide small fish and krill with shelter to help them avoid being eaten by seals, sea birds, penguins, and whales.
  • Both may give a glimpse into the future about glaciers and ice sheets as temperatures warm in the world.
  • As temperatures rise, both break off and then melt.
  • A wide range of scientists studying climate, glaciers, biology, and other fields find both ice shelves and icebergs important to study.

Sea Ice

Sea ice is a type of ice that develops in ocean waters when the temperature of these waters drops below freezing. Most sea ice is found in the

What is the Cryosphere

Antarctic and Arctic oceans. About 7 percent of the world ocean area is occupied by sea ice, though this often changes yearly. Pack-ice is a term used to describe old sea ice. This type is more than a year old and is frozen sea water. It formed somewhere else and then floated to another location with the help of currents and winds. Fast-ice is the term used to describe sea ice in its very early formation stages. It is attached to the coast and forms in situ. Sea ice facts:

  • Sea ice develops from ocean water so when it melts it does not cause sea level to rise.
  • Native Arctic people’s customs and lives rely on sea ice.
  • The effects of climate change can be studied by scientists by studying sea ice.
  • The climate of earth and sea ice is closely linked, making scientists grow increasingly concerned about its recent decline.
  • This type of ice gives seals, polar bears, and other animals somewhere to live.

Frozen Ground

Frozen ground is best described as rock or soil in which all, or just a part, of the contained water is frozen. Permafrost occurs when the ground

What is the Cryosphere

is frozen all throughout the year. Permafrost refers to being permanently frozen ground. It is below water’s freezing point for a minimum of two years. Ice is frequently present, but not always. Permafrost is typically found in high latitudes, but alpine permafrost may be found in lower latitudes and high altitudes. As the climate changes, permafrost’s extent can vary. The active layer typically thaws in the summer. Time of year and location will determine the active layers’ thickness. Much of the Arctic is covered with permafrost. Frozen ground facts:

  • Frozen ground does exist at high elevations, but is mostly found in the Antarctic and Arctic.
  • There is often an active layer near frozen ground’s surface, where, for at least sometime during the year, the soil is thawed allowing plants to live.
  • Methane, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases are stored. Scientists are now studying how climate is affected by these gases as permafrost thaws and temperatures warm.
  • As climate warms, frozen ground begins to melt.
  • Frozen ground can shift upon melting creating issues for those building dams, roads, or structures.


NASA. (2007). A Tour of the Cryosphere: Earth’s Frozen Assets. Retrieved on November 14, 2010 from NASA: https://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/environment/cryosphere.html

Rice University. (2010). What is the Cryosphere? Retrieved on November 14, 2010 from Rice University: https://earth.rice.edu/mtpe/cryo/cryosphere.html

National Snow and Ice Data Center. (2010). All About Glaciers. Retrieved on November 17, 2010 from the National Snow and Ice Data Center: https://nsidc.org/glaciers/

National Snow and Ice Data Center. (2010). Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis. Retrieved on November 17, 2010 from the National Snow and Ice Data Center: https://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

The Cryosphere Today. (2010). Archives. Retrieved on November 17, 2010 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Polar Research Group Department of Atmospheric Sciences: https://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/

Image Credits

Cryosphere Map: Hugo Ahlenius – Wikimedia Commons

Iceberg: rsface001 – sxc.hu

Snow: Yello-Dog – sxc.hu

Ice: frouuu – sxc.hu

Glacier: pepoitana – sxc.hu

Sea Ice: ColinBroug – sxc.hu

Frozen Ground: biewoef – sxc.hu