Switzerland’s glaciers have lost more than half their volume in less than a hundred years, and this year’s long hot summer has accelerated the thaw, a new study has found.
Glaciers support ski resorts and attract climbers and hikers in the summer, but they are also essential to Europe’s water supply. Now, communities in the Alps are worried about their future.
In Switzerland, at 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) above sea level, expect to see ice. But above the village of Les Diablerets, where the cable car company Glacier 3000 operates, there are now vast expanses of bare rock.
Two glaciers, Tsanfleuron and Scex Rouge, have split, revealing terrain not seen for thousands of years. “We are probably the first people to walk here,” says Bernhard Tschannen, who runs the company.
Mr Tschannen is watching one of Switzerland’s top attractions disappear before his eyes.
Visiting tourists can see from the Eiger to the Matterhorn to Mont Blanc. They could also, until recently, walk on miles of pristine blue glacier.
Now the ice is broken up by rocks, mud and puddles. The change is dramatic.
“When we built this lift we had to dig seven meters into the ice. That was 23 years ago,” he explains. “Look,” he points several meters away, “where the glacier is now.”
Scientists have been tracking the shrinking of alpine glaciers for 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 from the past 10 years.
The findings are consistent with long-standing evidence that Europe’s glaciers are shrinking and that there is a direct link between ice loss and global warming.
Ice is particularly sensitive to temperature changes, so if the earth warms, glaciers are the first to notice and react by melting.
Mauro Fischer, a glaciologist at the University of Bern, is responsible for monitoring Tsanfleuron and Scex Rouge. Each year in the spring he installs ice gauges 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 bars had completely melted from the ice and were lying on the ground. His measurements of the ice, he says, were “off the charts – far beyond what we’ve ever measured since we started monitoring the glacier, maybe three times more mass loss in one year than the average of the last 10 years”.
Defrosting also brings risks. In the famous resort of Zermatt, climbing routes up the Matterhorn had to be closed because, as the glaciers melt, the rock once held by the ice becomes unstable.
Richard Lehner, a mountain guide in Zermatt, like his father and grandfather before him, has spent less time climbing this summer and more time repairing or rerouting dangerous trails. He remembers when he could walk right across from the Gorner Glacier. Not anymore.
“The permafrost in the mountains is melting. You have more cracks in the glacier because there isn’t enough snow from the winter and that makes our job more difficult. You have to think more about risk management.”
Melting glaciers also reveal long-standing secrets. This summer, the wreckage of a plane that crashed in 1968 emerged from the Aletsch Glacier. Bodies of climbers, missing for decades but perfectly preserved by the ice, were also discovered.
But the consequences of ice loss are far wider than damaging local tourism or finding lost climbers.
Glaciers are often referred to as the water towers of Europe. They store winter snow and gently release it in summer, providing water for Europe’s rivers and crops and to cool its nuclear power plants.
Already this summer, freight transport along the Rhine in Germany has been disrupted because the water level is too low for heavy barges. In Switzerland, dying fish are hastily rescued from rivers that are too shallow and too hot.
In France and Switzerland, nuclear power plants have been forced to reduce capacity because cooling water is limited.
Samuel Nussbaumer of the Global Glacier Monitoring Service believes it’s a sign of things to come.
He says current projections show that by the end of the century the only ice left will be high up in the mountains: “Above 3,500 meters there will still be some ice in 100 years. So if that ice is gone, it won’t there is other water.”
The magnitude of the loss this summer has boggled minds. Glaciologist Mauro Fischer admits that although he knew from watching what was happening, the result made him emotional. “It’s like the melting glaciers are crying. The high mountain environments are telling us that we really need to change. It makes me very sad.”
At Glacier 3000, Bernhard Tschannen has begun wrapping some of the remaining ice in protective caps in an attempt to slow the thaw. Asked if he feels helpless, there is a long pause.
“We can contribute to it being maybe a little less fast, but I think we can’t stop it completely, at least not at this altitude for the glaciers.”
In Zermatt, Richard Lehner’s great-grandparents used to hope that the glaciers would not extend too far into the valley and cover their pastures. In the 19th century, there was so much ice that poor Swiss alpine communities carved up chunks of it and sold it to smart hotels in Paris to keep champagne cold.
Those days are long gone and no one misses them much.
But no glaciers at all?
“We have a problem,” says Richard. “All over Europe, it’s not just up here in the mountains. These glaciers, this water, I don’t know how we’ll live without the glaciers.”