Climate change

How climate change is melting glaciers in the Alps – in pictures | Climate crisis

FFrom the way 45-year-old Swiss glaciologist Andreas Linsbauer leaps across icy crevasses, you would never guess he was carrying 10kg of steel equipment needed to track the decline of Swiss glaciers.

Normally he takes this path on the massive Morteratsch glacier in late September, at the end of the summer melt season in the Alps. But unusually high ice loss this year brought him to the 15 km2 (six square mile) ice amphitheater two months earlier for emergency maintenance work.

The measuring poles he uses to track changes in pack depth are in danger of dislodging entirely as the ice melts, and he must drill new holes.


Glaciers in the Alps are on track for their highest mass losses in at least 60 years of record keeping, data shared exclusively with Reuters broadcasts. By looking at the difference between the amount of snow that falls in winter and the amount of ice that melts in summer, scientists can measure how much a glacier has shrunk in a given year.

Since last winter, which brought relatively little snow, the Alps have gone through two major heat waves in early summer, including one in July marked by temperatures close to 30°C (86°F) in the Swiss mountain village of Zermatt.

glacier reflected in window behind hikers

During this heat wave, the altitude at which the water froze was measured at a record high of 5,184 meters (17,000 feet) – an altitude higher than Mont Blanc – compared to the normal summer level of 3,000 to 3,500 meters.

“It’s really obvious this is an extreme season,” Linsbauer said, shouting over the roar of meltwater as he checked the height of a pole sticking out of the ice.

Most of the world’s mountain glaciers are retreating due to climate change. But those in the European Alps are particularly vulnerable because they are smaller, with relatively little ice cover. Meanwhile, temperatures in the Alps are warming at around 0.3°C per decade, twice as fast as the global average.

Hikers at the Pers Glacier

A couple takes a selfie in front of the Pers Glacier

If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, glaciers in the Alps are expected to lose more than 80% of their current mass by 2100. Many will disappear regardless of action taken now, thanks to global warming fueled by past emissions, according to a 2019 Report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Pers and Morteratsch glaciers.  An expanding strip of sand lies between them.

Already, Morteratsch is very different from the glacier represented on the tourist maps of the region. The long tongue that once reached deep into the valley below has shrunk by almost two miles, while the depth of snow and sea ice has thinned to 200 meters.

The smaller Pers glacier flowed there until 2017, when it retreated so much that it broke off. However, glaciologists still often group them with the Morteratsch complex.

This year’s dire situation has raised fears that glaciers in the Alps are disappearing sooner than expected. With more years like 2022, that could happen, said Matthias Huss, who leads Switzerland’s glacier monitoring (GLAMOSGlamos).

Snow from the last winter season is covered with blankets on a slope next to the upper station of a cable car in the Diavolezza ski area near the alpine resort of Pontresina

“We see that the model results expected decades from now are happening now,” Huss said. “I did not expect to see such an extreme year so early in the century.”

Glaciologists in Austria, France and Italy have confirmed that glaciers are on track for record losses. In Austria, “glaciers are devoid of snow up to the summits,” said Andrea Fischer, a glaciologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Seasonal snowfall, in addition to replenishing ice lost during the summer, protects glaciers from further melting by providing a white blanket that reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere better than darker ice – stained by dust or pollution – can’t do it.

Melt water on the Pers Glacier
Melt water on the Pers Glacier

But on the Grand Etret glacier in northwestern Italy, just 1.3 meters of snow had accumulated over the past winter, 2 meters less than the annual average for the past 20 years. until 2020.

This year’s alpine ice losses, recorded even before the biggest melt in August, surprised scientists to some degree, as many glaciers had already lost their lower snouts. Because they had retreated to the mountains, where the temperatures are cooler, scientists thought they should have been better protected.

“You can easily imagine that the end results after the summer will be a significant loss of ice cover in the Italian Alps,” said Marco Giardino, vice president of the Italian Glaciological Committee.

A woman poses next to a Swiss national flag near Mount Piz Palue

Data shared exclusively with Reuters shows that Morteratsch is now losing about 5cm per day and is already in worse condition than he normally would be at the end of an average summer, according to data from Glamos and the Free University. from Brussels.

The nearby Silvretta glacier lost about a meter more than at the same time in 1947 – the worst year in its database dating back to 1915.

A hiker walks on a border moraine of the Pers Glacier