World

Switzerland’s glaciers are becoming a front-row seat to climate destruction

FOR most of its existence glaciology has been a slow-moving profession, but this year is different.

The belting heat waves that struck Europe over the past few months handed the specialists in Alpine ice sheets an unprecedented set of challenges. And some of their charges — like the Vadret dal Corvatsch glacier above the Engadin valley — aren’t going to be around much longer.

Late last month, Matthias Huss, the head of Switzerland’s glacier monitoring body GLAMOS announced that his measuring station at Corvatsch was being shut down, a “bitter” outcome of extreme melting this year that left little ice left to measure.

“We have lost such a lot of ice this year that we have basically skipped about three years and stepped into the future,” Huss says in an interview. “This was the first year when I was really worried about the summer because the melting was so strong. I really sensed that my glaciers would lose a lot of mass.”

Glaciers are a much-discussed, and sometimes anthropomorphized, indicator of climate change. Their demise is also becoming deadly for mankind. This summer’s high temperatures in Europe led to a glacial ice shelf collapse in Italy that ended the life of 11 hikers. The Himalayas are also losing ice at an accelerated rate. This year’s record breaking glacial melt in Asia’s iconic mountain range has added to floods that have devastated Pakistan, submerging farmlands and cities and killing more than 1,000 people.

With so much at stake, I began to wonder what the experience of this year has been like for the scientists that are now having to announce the grim realities of their findings, year after year. The summer has been hectic.

After shutting down the Corvatsch operation on a Thursday, the wiry 42-year-old Huss was running up to the Claridenfirn glacier in the Glarus Alps on Sunday to ensure that data measurements stretching back 108 years didn’t end up in slush sliding down the mountain.

By last Tuesday, which is when I tracked him down, Huss was in the middle of the Glacier de la Plaine Morte above the Rhone Valley. His team from ETH Zurich and the University of Fribourg were having a little trouble with their boring equipment.

After finding a more cooperative spot, the team drove the bolted-together sections of a Kovacs drill into the ice eight meters down. A measuring pole of the same length was then inserted, in the hope that that will be enough to keep pace with the thawing of the ice sheet for another year.

Four more of these operations on the glacier formed a day’s work for the team, who are experiencing the massive changes in their field with a mix of intellectual excitement and emotional distress.

“It hurts, in my heart as a mountaineer, as a mountain lover, but as a scientist it’s really an interesting time,” Huss says.

GLAMOS maintains data on about 180 of Switzerland’s 1,400 glaciers. Despite the fame of many of these Alpine features as ski destinations or attractions in their own right, Switzerland has only a tiny fraction of the world’s glaciers, the vast majority of which are in the polar regions.

Nevertheless, Switzerland has become a front-row seat for scientists watching the unfolding effects of climate change on mountain ecosystems. Higher latitudes are experiencing a greater-than-the-global-mean level of warming than those closer to the equator. Switzerland, which sits farther north than most of the continental US, has seen an average 2 degrees Celsius increase over the past 150 years, compared with the overall 1 degree mean rise.

The melting Alpine glaciers have uncovered the bodies of long-lost mountaineers, the wreckage of a light aircraft that came down in 1968, along with other revelations that have made front page news.

The data inputs from glacier science are also vital to predicting river flow and the risk of floods far below the mountain. The accelerated glacial melt is replenishing the reservoirs of Switzerland’s hydroelectric dams despite a historic lack of rainfall, potentially helping it avoid the soaring power prices expected to squeeze much of Europe this winter.

At the Glacier de la Plaine Morte, a 5-kilometer-long sheet that sits, immobile, in a trough made by mountain peaks, the shrinkage is visible on a vast scale. A decade ago, the surface of the ice was as much as 20 meters higher. In recent years, small outcrops of the underlying rock and earth — known as nunataks, from the Inuit — have appeared on its surface, making their first foray into the open air for thousands of years.

With the summer ending, thoughts in this Alpine nation begin to turn to the ski season. Many resorts will grapple with an intensified set of climate-related threats to their business. Some resorts, including Corvatsch, have taken to cloaking their glacier surfaces with white tarpaulins in an effort to preserve the ice through the summer.

For some routes, like a cross-country loop at Crans-Montana that stretched out onto the Plaine Morte ice sheet, it may be too late. Google Maps still shows a ski-lift connecting the cable-car station to the glacier, but in reality, it’s no longer there. –BLOOMBERG

Dayang Norazhar

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