Glaciers in the Alps are melting faster than ever

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(ORDO NEWS) — Finally, after perhaps the worst summer ever for glaciers, snow has begun to fall in the European Alps.

He is very needed. In the 19 years that I have been visiting and studying glaciers in Switzerland, I have not seen a summer like 2022. The scale of change is simply amazing.

Glaciologists like myself have used the word “extreme” to mean an annual ice loss of about 2 percent of the glacier’s total volume. Switzerland’s glaciers have lost an average of 6.2 percent of their ice this year – extreme indeed.

The new snowflakes form a protective blanket that reflects 90 percent of the sun’s radiation back into the atmosphere and limits warming and melting ice underneath.

When snow falls in the winter and then does not melt during the summer, it increases the mass of the glacier. After a few years like this, gravity will take over and the glaciers will begin to move down.

However, this has not happened in the last century. The protective layers of snow were not thick enough to offset the warming summer temperatures, and on average glaciers around the world have been depleted since the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid to late 1800s.

Sahara sand and intense heat

Let’s go back to this summer. The Alps had received very little snow the previous winter, so the glaciers were not well protected from the upcoming summer melt season.

The spring was especially harsh as natural atmospheric weather brought Saharan dust to Europe and blanketed the Alpine landscape. Because dust absorbs more solar energy than snow (which is white and therefore more reflective), the orange-tinted snow melted faster than ever.

Heatwaves then broke records across Europe, with parts of the UK reaching 40°C for the first time. The Alps are not left out. For example, Zermatt, the famous Swiss car-free village in the shadow of the Matterhorn, has recorded temperatures of up to 33°C despite being 1,620 meters above sea level.

Glaciers were particularly hard hit. By July, the Alps looked like they usually do in September: without snow, with snow and icy rivers flowing at their peak. It wasn’t normal.

The last time an extreme glacier melt season was in 2003, when, again, temperatures were very high in Europe and at least 30,000 people died as a result of a heat wave (more than 14,000 in France alone). In that calendar year, 3.8 percent of glacial ice melted in Switzerland.

This year, for the first time in history, Zermatt closed summer skiing. The guides stopped leading high-altitude expeditions as the permafrost—the frozen ground that holds rocks together—thawed and caused near-constant rockfalls. Mont Blanc was closed.

50 years of data

We can put the situation in historical context partly thanks to the work of the charity Alpine Glacier Project, which was founded in 1972 and, together with the University of Salford, where I work, conducted scientific expeditions to the glaciers in the Zermatt region every summer for 50 years.

Dozens of students have helped monitor the impact of climate change by chemically monitoring changes in meltwater, surveying the landscape, and photographing from the same vantage point over the years.

Over the five decades of the project, the Horner Glacier and the Findel Glacier have retreated 1,385 meters and 1,655 meters, respectively.

In Switzerland, these glacial meltwaters are used for hydroelectric power. In fact, water that falls over 93% of Switzerland ends up passing through at least one power plant before leaving the country.

In this way, the melting of glaciers helps to compensate for the lack of rainfall during a drought, filling reservoirs to provide the country’s energy supply.

It can be argued that not all glaciers have been equally affected by the catastrophic retreat and loss of ice this summer. This is partly true.

The degree of melting of a glacier depends on the height at which it is located, on the steepness of the tongue of the glacier, and on how much it is covered with debris. There may be local climatic factors.

However, just published studies have shown that the Austrian glaciers lost more glacial ice in 2022 than in 70 years of observations, so it is clear that strong melting has become the norm in 2022.

Visiting and observing the geography of the highlands is a breathtaking sight, but I fear that the continued melting of the ice and extreme temperatures seen this year are not an anomaly.

Many more glaciers may be completely lost within a single generation.


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