×

Alpine Glaciers Set for Highest Ice Loss in 60 Years

The summer heatwaves in Europe are having a significant impact with glaciers shrinking sharply. This year is when many have woken up to the fact that on current projections it is likely many glaciers will disappear in the coming decades. UPDATED

  • 15
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
    15
    Shares

The International Commission for the Protection of the Alps, CIPRA, says temperatures in Europe’s highest mountains have risen by almost two degrees Celsius over the past 120 years.

That’s almost twice the global average.

Glaciers in the European Alps are especially vulnerable to climate change because they are smaller than others and have relatively little ice cover.

Temperatures in The Alps are warming at about 0.3C per decade.

If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the glaciers in The Alps are expected to lose more than 80% of their current mass by the end of the century.

Glaciologists in Austria, France Italy and Switzerland have said their countries are on track for record losses this summer.

200 Alpine glaciers have disappeared since the end of 19th century according to the Italian environmental group, Legambiente.

“All that is left of them is detritus and rocks,” it said.

Italy’s Alpine glaciers are at their smallest extent in centuries

The biggest melt month is August and another heatwave is already hitting The Alps.

Zermatt in Switzerland usually sees summer temperatures in the 20Cs – last month it had a high of 30C (86F).

It has already suspended all summer skiing operations:

View from the top of Zermatt

View from the top of Zermatt. Image © PlanetSKI

The freezing level in Switzerland was at 5,184m in July.

A weather balloon had to rise to that height before hitting 0°C

That is well above Switzerland’s tallest mountain, The Dom which is 4,545m high.

The measurement was 70m higher than the previous Swiss record of 5,117m, which was measured on July 20th 1995.

See this video from the BBC on the current situation:

In Switzerland the Glacier 3000 ski resort has said a local mountain pass will be free of ice for the first time since the Roman era.

The pass in question is between Scex Rouge and Tsanfleuron.

“The pass will be entirely in the open air in a few weeks,” Glacier 3000 in a statement.

While the ice measured about 15 metres  thick in 2012, the ground underneath “will have completely resurfaced by the end of September”.

The pass marks the border between the Vaud and Valais cantons in western Switzerland.

Skiers could go from one glacier to the other but now between them has emerged, with just the last remaining bit of ice left.

The Swiss glaciologist, Mauro Fischer, a researcher at Bern University, said the loss of thickness of the glaciers in the region will be on average three times higher this year compared to the last 10 years.

Another Swiss glaciologist, Matthias Huss, said that rising temperatures were causing freshwater glaciers to melt faster than ever.

Historical Impact

In Austria glaciologists are also monitoring the melt.

It is not just the disappearing ice that matters – the ice stores important historical information about the climate.

For scientists reconstructing Earth’s climate in the distant past ice formations are a unique time capsule.

“I could not have imagined that it would ever melt as dramatically as it did this summer… Our ‘archive’ is melting away,” said the glaciologist, Andrea Fischer, who is studying the impact on the Jamtal Glacier.

“This year is unprecedented compared to the average of the past 6,000 years.

“If things continue like this, the Jamtal Glacier will no longer be a glacier in five years.”

The fate of the Jamtal glacier is being mirrored across the Alps.

Les2Alpes, France. Image © PlanetSKI

Les2Alpes, France. Image © PlanetSKI

Ski Resort Impact

At some ski resorts that rely on glaciers, ice has been covered with white sheets to reflect sunlight and reduce melting.

It is not a viable or long-term solution for the glaciers across The Alps.

One study says that if the Earth warms by 4-5°C France will lose 116 days of snow at 3,500m or 34% of its snow days.

Tignes, France. Image © David Morgan

Tignes, France. Image © David Morgan

Summer skiing is currently only available to the general public at Hintertux in Austria with some questioning its future as other resorts have closed skiing operations this summer.

Les2Alpes, Tignes, Passo Stelvio have shut.

Val D’Isere was unable to even open its glacier ski area.

There is summer skiing in the Norwegian ski resort of Fonna that has not seen high summer temperatures.

But it has just announced that it is closing early:

“Unlike the rest of Europe so far we are experiencing very cold summer here in west coast of Norway,” said the resort.
“Night frost this morning and still a lot of snow on the slopes,” it added.

Avalanche Impact

The melting glaciers have already caused loss of life this summer.

A partial collapse of a glacier on the Marmolada mountain in the Dolomites in Italy led to 11 people losing their lives.

See this Tweet for the moment the glacier collapsed:

Marmolada ice collapse. Image c/o Alpine rescue services.

Marmolada ice collapse. Image c/o Alpine rescue services.

There are real concerns that the tragedy may be repeated elsewhere, but efforts are underway to predict such accidents.

There are about 1,400 glaciers in Switzerland.

60 currently threaten inhabited areas, plus roads and railways.

“In recent years, the list has become shorter. Not because the danger has decreased, but simply because some small glaciers have disappeared,” the scientist, Ingrid Senn, recently told Swissinfo.ch

In Switzerland, most of the dangerous glaciers are located in Valais canton.

These include the glacier on the Weisshorn, a hanging glacier above the valley leading to Zermatt.

Plus the glaciers of Gruben, Trift and Allalin.

Researchers use helicopter flyovers and field inspections, plus the latest technology.

This includes high-resolution cameras, radars, acoustic sensors, ice vibration detectors and satellite images to record every tiny movement of the glaciers deemed a threat.

In the event of an alert, roads and railways are closed and people are moved if necessary.

In September 2017 people were evacuated from part of the village of Saas-Grund, at an altitude of 1,559m.

The unstable part of the Trift glacier, which had been under observation since 2014, was moving at two meters per day.

A few hours after the evacuation an ice avalanche broke loose.

Flora and Fauna Impact

Some animal and plant species rely heavily on the cold conditions that the glaciers provide and are migrating to higher altitudes to find suitable habitat.

Others are taking over their habitats as we have already reported on PlanetSKI.

This is putting extra strain on the ecosystems as more animals and more species are living in an ever-shrinking region.

Austrian Alps in the summer

Austrian Alps in the summer. Image © PlanetSKI.

Across Europe the glaciers in the Pyrenees mountain range are predicted to vanish in three decades.

The Gourgs Blancs glacier has now completely disappeared due to rising temperatures.

The glacier sat at an altitude of 3,128m and was located in the Luchonnais valley region in Haute-Garonne, close to the border with Spain.

The picture in the Tweet below shows a comparison of the glacier at the beginning of the 20th century with another picture taken on August 6th 2022.

 Paris Agreement on Climate Change

The hope to reverse or delay this melting lies with The Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

It has four main goals with regards to reducing emissions:

1)  A long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels

2) To aim to limit the increase to 1.5°C, since this would significantly reduce risks and the impacts of climate change

3) Governments agreed on the need for global emissions to peak as soon as possible, recognising that this will take longer for developing countries

4) To undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with the best available science

If the Paris Agreement emissions targets are met scientists say this would save 80% of the current days with snow cover.

Plus it would go some way to limiting the melting of the alpine glaciers.

Switzerland’s melting glaciers: drone footage reveals impact of climate crisis

Glacier Melt in the Alps Continues

Near the Austrian Swiss border scientists are studying how global warming is causing a glacier to melt at an unprecedented rate.

Related Articles:

Image c/o PlanetSKI

 

  • 15
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
    15
    Shares