(ORDO NEWS) — Switzerland’s glaciers have lost more than half their volume in less than a century, and this year’s long hot summer has accelerated the melting process, a new study has found.
Glaciers support ski resorts and attract climbers and hikers in the summer, but they are also important to Europe’s water supply. Now the inhabitants of the Alps are worried about their future.
In Switzerland, at 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) above sea level, you expect to see ice. But above the village of Les Diablerets, where the Glacier 3000 cable car operates, there are now huge stretches of bare stone.
Two glaciers, the Zenfleuron and the Ssex Rouge, have parted to the sides, exposing land that has not been seen for thousands of years. “We are probably the first people to have been here,” says Bernhard Tschannen, CEO of the company.
Mr. Tschannen watches as one of Switzerland’s main attractions disappears before his eyes.
Tourists who come here can see from the Eiger to the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. Until recently, they could also walk miles of pristine blue glacier.
Now the ice is broken by stones, mud and puddles. The changes are dramatic.
“When we built this chairlift, we had to go seven meters into the ice. That was 23 years ago,” he explains. “Look,” he points a few meters further, “where the glacier is now.”
Scientists have been observing the shrinking of alpine glaciers for many years. A joint study by the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich and the Swiss Federal Landscape Office compared topographic images of glaciers from the 1930s with those taken over the past 10 years.
The findings are consistent with longstanding evidence that Europe’s glaciers are shrinking and that there is a direct link between ice loss and global warming.
Ice caps are particularly sensitive to temperature changes, so when warming occurs, glaciers are the first to notice and respond by melting.
Mauro Fischer, a glaciologist at the University of Bern, is responsible for monitoring the glaciers Zahnfleuron and Scex Rouge. Every year in the spring, he installs the ice rods and checks them regularly in the summer and fall.
When he went to check on them in July, he was in for a shock.
The rods completely melted out of the ice and lay on the ground. According to him, the measurements of the ice “went off scale – much more than we have ever measured since the beginning of the monitoring of the glacier, perhaps three times the mass loss per year than the average for the last 10 years.”
The thaw brings danger. In the famous resort of Zermatt, climbing trails leading to the Matterhorn had to be closed because as the glaciers melt, the rocks once held together by ice become unstable.
Richard Lechner, a mountain guide in Zermatt, like his father and grandfather before him, spent less time climbing this summer and more time repairing or laying risky trails. He remembers the days when he could walk right on Horner Glacier. Not anymore.
“The permafrost in the mountains is melting. There are more and more crevices in the glacier because there wasn’t enough snow during the winter, and this makes our work more difficult. We have to think more about risk management.”
Melting glaciers also reveal long-kept secrets. This summer, the wreckage of a plane that crashed in 1968 was recovered from the Aletsch glacier. Also found were the bodies of climbers who had been missing for decades but perfectly preserved in the ice.
But the consequences of the loss of ice go far beyond the damage to local tourism or the search for lost climbers.
Glaciers are often referred to as the water towers of Europe. They accumulate winter snow and gently dump it in summer, providing water to Europe’s rivers and crops, and cooling its nuclear power plants.
Already this summer, freight traffic on the Rhine in Germany was interrupted because the water level was too low for heavily laden barges. In Switzerland, dying fish are hastily rescued from rivers that are too shallow and too warm.
In France and Switzerland, nuclear power plants have been forced to reduce capacity due to lack of water to cool them.
Samuel Nussbaumer of the World Glacier Monitoring Service thinks this is a sign of what’s to come.
He says that according to current forecasts, by the end of the century, ice will remain only high in the mountains: “Above 3,500 meters, in 100 years there will still be some ice. So if this ice disappears, there will be no more water.”
The scale of the losses this summer has captured the attention of minds. Glaciologist Mauro Fischer admits that although he knew what was going on through his monitoring, the result made him emotional. “It’s like melting glaciers are crying. The high altitude environment is telling us that we really need to change. I’m very sad.”
At Glacier 3000, Bernhard Tschannen began to wrap some of the remaining ice in protective covers in an attempt to slow down the thaw. When asked if he felt helpless, there was a long pause.
“We can help make it maybe a little slower, but I don’t think we can stop it completely, at least not at that height for the glaciers.”
In Zermatt, Richard Lechner’s great-grandparents hoped that the glaciers would not penetrate too far into the valley and cover their pastures. In the 19th century, ice was so plentiful that poor Swiss Alpine communities carved pieces of it and sold them to posh Parisian hotels to keep champagne cold.
Those days are long gone, and no one is particularly nostalgic for them.
But to have no glaciers at all?
“We have a problem,” says Richard. “All over Europe, not only here in the mountains. These glaciers, this water, I don’t know how we will live without glaciers.”
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