Amid European heatwave, glaciers are melting at record pace in Alps: report

From 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 huge Morteratsch glacier at the end of September, at the end of the summer melting season in the Alps. But unusually high ice loss this year brought it to the 15-square-kilometre (5.8-square-mile) ice amphitheater two months early for emergency maintenance work.

The measuring poles he uses to track changes in pack depth are at risk of dislodging entirely as the ice melts and he has to 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 fell in winter and the amount of ice that melted in summer, scientists can gauge 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 at the start of summer – including one in July marked by temperatures near 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Swiss mountain village of Zermatt.

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

“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 – 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 warming at around 0.3°C per decade, about twice as fast as the global average.

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 emissions measures taken now, thanks to global warming fueled by past emissions, according to a 2019 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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 nearly 3 kilometers (2 miles), while the depth of snow and sea ice has thinned to 200 meters (656 feet). A parallel Pers glacier flowed there until 2017 but has now retreated so much that an expanding sandstrip lies between them.

This year’s dire situation has raised fears that glaciers in the Alps will disappear sooner than expected. With more years like 2022, that could happen, said Matthias Huss, who leads Glacier Monitoring Switzerland.

“We see that the model results expected decades from now are 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 the glaciers were 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.

But on the Grand Etret glacier in northwestern Italy, just 1.3 meters (4.2 feet) of snow had accumulated over the past winter, or 2 meters (6.6 feet) less than the annual average for the 20 years to 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.

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“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.

Data shared exclusively with Reuters shows that Morteratsch is now losing about 5 centimeters (2 inches) a 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 of Brussels.

The nearby Silvretta glacier lost about 1 meter (3.3 feet) more than at the same time in 1947 – the worst year in its database dating back to 1915.


Glaciers in the Himalayas are also on track for a record year of ice loss, scientists told Reuters. When the summer monsoon season arrived in the Kashmir region, for example, many glaciers had already shrunk considerably, their snow lines starting at the top of the mountain, after a March to May heat wave marked by temperatures above 48 °C (118 °F) in northern India.

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


Vanishing glaciers are already endangering lives and livelihoods. Earlier this month, a glacier collapse on Italy’s Marmolada killed 11 people. A few days later, a collapsing glacier in the Tian Shan Mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan triggered a massive avalanche, sending ice and rocks flying towards passing tourists.

Above the Swiss village of Saas Fee, a path leading to a mountain hut once crossed a field of summer snow on top of the Chessjen glacier.

“It’s too dangerous now,” due to the risk of falling rocks, once held together by frozen ice, goalkeeper Dario Andenmatten said as he gazed out over a barren landscape dotted with glacial lakes. Nearby, we could hear the roar of stones falling from the mountain.

Swiss residents fear that glacial losses will hurt their economy. Some ski resorts in the Alps region, 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 fairy tales and the Aletsch Glacier is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Losing the glaciers “is losing our national heritage, our identity,” said hiker Bernardin Chavaillaz. “It’s sad.”

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