updated 2/24/2009 6:46:38 PM ET 2009-02-24T23:46:38

The Pyrenees have lost nearly 90 percent of their glacier ice over the past century and global warming means the rest could disappear within the next few decades, the Spanish Environment Ministry says.

A study by the ministry has found that the estimated 8,150 acres of ice that covered the mountain range between Spain and France at the beginning of the 20th century have been reduced to 960 acres. About half of what remains lies on either side of the border, a ministry official said Tuesday.

The study says the meltdown in Europe's southernmost glaciers has sped up in recent years. Between 2002 and 2008, the Spanish Pyrenees lost about a quarter of their glacier ice, it said.

Spanish scientists began to realize the gravity of the situation after a program was launched in 1978 to study snow levels in the mountains and gauge yearly thaws. Over the years, they began to see the glaciers diminish at an alarming rate.

Miguel Frances, the coordinator of the study, which was released last week, said that even winters with heavy snowfalls do not appear to be able to stop the process.

"Last year there was a lot of snow. This stabilized the glaciers but they did not grow," Frances was quoted as saying by El Pais newspaper.

The ministry study states that the melting of the glaciers in the Pyrenees and in other mountain ranges around the world is a direct consequence of global warming and changes in rainfall patterns.

"We need 20 winters like this one, which is a one-off," Fernando Lampre, president of the Pyrenees Glacier Monument Heritage, was quoted as saying by El Pais. "Otherwise, in 25 or 30 years' time the majority of glaciers will have disappeared and by the middle of the century they'll all be gone."

According to the United Nations Environment Program, glaciers across the world are threatened, which is jeopardizing water supplies for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people.

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