Exclusive: Glaciers are disappearing at record speed in the Alps after heat waves

Exclusive: Glaciers are disappearing at record speed in the Alps after heat waves

MORTERATSCH GLACIER, Switzerland, July 26 (Reuters) – From the way 45-year-old Swiss glaciologist Andreas Linsbauer walks across icy crevasses, you’d never guess he was carrying 10 kg of steel equipment needed to chart the decline of Switzerland’s glaciers.

He normally heads down this trail on the massive Morteratsch glacier in late September, the end of the summer melt season in the Alps. But exceptionally high ice loss this year has brought him to this 15 square kilometer (5.8 sq mi) amphitheater of ice two months early for emergency maintenance.

The measuring rods he uses to track changes in the depth of the herd are in danger of coming off completely as the ice melts away and he has to drill new holes. (https://tmsnrt.rs/3RXrTb7)

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The Alps’ glaciers are on track for their highest mass losses in at least 60 years of record-keeping, data shared exclusively with Reuters shows. By looking at the difference in how much snow fell in winter, and how much ice melts in summer, researchers can measure how much a glacier has shrunk in a given year.

Since last winter, which brought relatively little snowfall, the Alps have sweltered through two major early summer heat waves – including one in July marked by temperatures close to 30 Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) in the Swiss mountain village of Zermatt.

During this heat wave, the height at which the water froze was measured at a record high of 5,184 meters (17,000 ft)—at a height higher than Mont Blanc—compared to the normal summer level of between 3,000-3,500 meters (9,800-11,500 ft).

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


Most of the world’s mountain glaciers – remnants of the last ice age – 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 rising by around 0.3C per decade – about twice as fast as the global average.

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

Morteratsch is already much changed from the glacier depicted on the region’s tourist map. The long tongue that once reached deep into the valley below has shrunk back by nearly 3 kilometers (2 miles), while the depth of the snow and ice pack has thinned by up to 200 meters (656 ft). A parallel glacier, Pers, flowed into it until 2017, but has now retreated so much that an expanding strip lies between them.

The serious situation this year raises concerns that the Alps’ glaciers may disappear faster than expected. With several years like 2022, that could happen, said Matthias Huss, who heads Glacier Monitoring Switzerland (GLAMOS).

“We’re seeing model results expected a few decades into the future happening now,” Huss said. “I didn’t expect to see such an extreme year so early in the century.”


Reuters spoke to glaciologists in Austria, France and Italy who confirmed that glaciers there were on track for record losses. In Austria, “the glaciers are snow-free up to the summits,” said Andrea Fischer, a glaciologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Seasonal snowfall, apart from replenishing the ice lost in the summer, protects glaciers from further melting by providing a white covering that reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere better than darker ice – caked with dust or pollution – can do.

But at the Grand Etret Glacier in northwest Italy, only 1.3 meters (4.2 feet) of snow had accumulated over the past winter – 2 meters (6.6 feet) less than the annual average for the next 20 years until 2020.

This year’s alpine ice loss, recorded even before the biggest melting month of August, surprised the researchers to some extent, as many of the glaciers had already lost their lower-lying snouts. Because they had retreated up the mountain, where temperatures are cooler, the researchers believed they should have been better protected.

“You can easily imagine that the final results after the summer will be … extensive loss of ice cover in the Italian Alps,” said Marco Giardino, Vice President of the Italian Glacier.

Data shared exclusively with Reuters show that Morteratsch is now shedding about 5 centimeters (2 inches) a day and is already in a worse condition than it would normally be at the end of an average summer, according to data from GLAMOS and the Universite libre de Bruxelles.

The nearby Silvretta Glacier has lost about 1 meter (3.3 ft) more than at the same time in 1947 – the worst year in the database going back to 1915.


Himalayan glaciers are also on track for a record year of ice loss, scientists told Reuters. By the time the summer monsoon season arrived in the Kashmir region, for example, many glaciers had already shrunk drastically, with snowlines starting high in the mountains, following a March-May heat wave marked by temperatures above 48C (118F) in northern India.

An early June expedition in India’s Himachal Pradesh found that the Chhota Shigri Glacier had lost much of its snow cover. “The highest temperature in over a century in March to May clearly had its impacts,” said glaciologist Mohd Farooq Azam of the Indian Institute of Technology Indore.


Disappearing glaciers are already putting lives and livelihoods at risk. Earlier this month, a glacier collapse on Marmolada in Italy killed 11 people. read more Days later, a collapsing glacier in the Tian Shan Mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstan triggered a massive avalanche, sending ice and rocks hurtling past tourists.

Above the Swiss village of Saas Fee, a path leading to a mountain hut once ran through a summer snowfield on top of the Chessjen glacier.

“It’s too dangerous now,” because of the risk of falling rocks, once held together by frozen ice, said lodge host Dario Andenmatten as he gazed out over a barren landscape dotted with glaciers. Nearby, the rumble of rocks falling from the mountain could be heard.

Swiss residents are concerned that the loss of land will hurt their economy. Some ski resorts in the Alps, which depend on these glaciers, now cover them with white sheets to reflect sunlight and reduce melting.

Swiss glaciers feature in many of the country’s adventures, and the Aletsch Glacier is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Losing the glaciers “means losing our national heritage, our identity,” said hiker Bernardin Chavaillaz. “It is sad.”

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Reporting by Emma Farge and Gloria Dickie; Additional reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Katy Daigle and Lisa Shumaker

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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