‘Losing all the glaciers in Switzerland is not that far away’


‘Losing all the glaciers in Switzerland is not that far away’
The Rhône glacier. Photo: Max Schmid/Swiss Tourism
By Sean Mowbray/The Local
A child born in Switzerland today will likely live to see the turn of the 22nd century. If scientists are right, the views they’ll see will have changed remarkably, writes The Local contributor Sean Mowbray.
For one, they will likely shiver less in winter and only see glaciers in the highest reaches of the Alps. It’s a grim vision of a future depleted of snow and ice, but it’s a vision that can be avoided. Well, sort of.
Glacial retreat
This past year alone was nigh-on catastrophic for Switzerland’s glaciers.
Matthias Huss, a glaciologist at the University of Fribourg, tells The Local that many of Switzerland’s glaciers were snow-free by July this year. That meant the icy surfaces of glaciers were at the direct mercy of the sizzling August temperatures. The result is that over a single year, three percent of Swiss glacial mass melted away.
That’s enough ice melt to provide every single Swiss household with a rather cold 25m2 swimming pool, Huss says.
“This really indicates that losing all the glaciers in Switzerland is not that far away,” he warns.
That’s not to say that the epic ice loss of 2017 will be necessarily repeated next year, nor even in the next five years. But, Huss explains, Swiss glaciers are still going through a steep decline with no end in sight. For the past 30 years they’ve been losing mass, sometimes in epic proportions, overtimes in small amounts.
The result of all this loss is that by 2100, when a Swiss child born in 2017 is lighting their 83rd birthday candle, there’ll be far fewer glaciers left in Switzerland, with up to 90 percent of them lost.
“The troubling thing is that this is not even that much dependent on future CO2,” says Huss.
Will scenes like this, of the Aletsch glacier, become a thing of the past? Photo: The Local
He points to the Aletsch glacier, which is currently the longest glacier in Europe. Unfortunately it’s too big for the current climate. Even if temperatures stabilize, glaciers such as the Aletsch keep on melting for a time until they retreat to a place they can survive, says Huss. Unfortunately, the Alps just aren’t high enough to offer refuge.
“We cannot preserve the Aletsch glacier, for example, with its beautiful glacial tongue, even with strongly reduced CO2 emissions,” Huss continues.
The Aletsch won’t disappear altogether, but it will likely retreat nearer to the Jungfraujoch and become a shadow of what it once was, with around 70-80 percent of its current volume reduced to meltwater.
Snow’s not so sure 
Glacier-lovers may have a grim view of the future in Switzerland, but skiers need not despair completely – for now.
Christoph Marty, of the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, is more optimistic about what’s to come. That’s because we can still do something about the amount of snowfall in Switzerland, he says.
“We say that glaciers have a memory,” Marty tells The Local. “A bad year with little snow and lots of melt means they have a bad start to the next year.” However, for snow, “each year is like resetting the dial back to zero”.
In a study released earlier this year, Marty and his team said that snow cover will largely disappear from the Alps by 2100.   That’s hardly great news, but crucially, his research points out that this is dependent on CO2 emissions and the amount of warming that happens between now and then.
“If we don’t cut emissions, enough snow for winter sports can only be guaranteed above 2,500 metres,” the researchers said in a statement back in February.
Since less snowfall also comes with a loss of snow days in general , the ski season simultaneously shortens while snow cover worsens – bad news for skiers.
The ski slopes in Grindelwald in mid March 2017. Photo: The Local
Marty believes that as things stand, we are probably on course to raise the snow-sure altitude level from its current 1,400 metres by a good 500-700 metres. But if we tackle emissions then that could be reduced greatly.
However, that seems a big ‘if’.
Switzerland, for its part, is committed to the Paris agreement and aims to halve its CO2 emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. The new Energy Strategy 2050, which enters into force on January 1st 2018, also envisages a Switzerland that’s more energy efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels.
But with the US pulling out of Paris, it remains to be seen if enough can be done worldwide to tackle climate change.
Not such a quick fix    
By now, you’re probably thinking perhaps these problems could be fixed with a few good snow blowers. These water and energy hungry snow producers are now a common sight at many alpine ski resorts. Couldn’t they be used to save glaciers?
Glaciologist Felix Keller has been figuring out how to put them to use to save the Morteratsch glacier. He plans to blow snow over the glacier during the summer months to ward off any melt. Previously, it had been thought that thousands of snow machines would be needed, but Keller’s new calculations mean that only around 200 would be needed, he tells The Local.
However he concedes this would be a stop-gap measure and that glaciers cannot be saved forever – we can only slow their decline. On top of that, using snow blowers is incredibly costly, both financially and environmentally, making it a measure that Huss says simply isn’t feasible across the hundreds of glaciers in Switzerland.
Efforts to save glaciers should only be considered if it’s absolutely essential to preserve water sources, says Keller, who is concerned about what the loss of glaciers means for freshwater availability, particularly during summer time, something that’s not yet entirely clear.
So it’s likely we can’t engineer our way out of this one. Switzerland’s glaciers are melting away, one year after another, and while we can still hope to see snow-sure slopes for some time to come, as temperatures rise this will become more challenging and be at further cost to the environment. What is sure is that children born today or in the coming decades will look out on to an alpine landscape that’s vastly different from our own.
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Published by CityFella

Big city fella, Born and Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Lived in New York (a part time New Yorker) for three years . I have lived in the Sacramento area since 1993. When I first moved here, I hated it. Initially found the city too conservative for my tastes. A great place to raise children however too few options for adults . The city has grown up, there is much to do here. The city suffers from low self esteem in my opinion, locals have few positive words to say about their hometown. visitors and transplants are amazed at what they find here. From, the grand old homes in Alkali Flats, and the huge trees in midtown, there are many surprises in Sacramento. Theater is alive is this area . And finally ,there is a nightlife... In.downtown midtown, for the young and not so young. My Criticism is with local government. There is a shortage of visionaries in city hall. Sacramento has long relied on the state, feds and real estate for revenue. Like many cities in America,Downtown Sacramento was the hub of activity in the area. as the population moved to the suburbs and retail followed. The city has spent millions to revive downtown. Today less than ten thousand people live downtown. No one at city hall could connect the dots. Population-Retail. Business says Sacramento is challenging and many corporations have chosen to set up operations outside the cities limits. There is vision in the burbs. Sacramento has bones, there are many good pieces here, leaders seem unable or unwilling to put those pieces together into. Rant aside, I love it here. From the trees to the rivers. But its the people here that move me. Sacramento is one of the most integrated cities in America. I find I'm welcome everywhere. The spices work in this city of nearly 500,000 and for the most part these spices blend well together. From Ukrainians to Hispanics and a sizable gay community, all the spices seem to work well here. I frequently travel and occasionally I will venture into a city with huge racial borders, where its unsafe to visit after certain hours. I haven't found it here. I cant imagine living in a community where there is one hue or one spice. I love the big trees, Temple Coffee House, the Alhambra Safeway, Zelda's Pizza, Bicyclist in Midtown, The Mother Lode Saloon, Crest Theater, and the Rivers. I could go on and I might. Sacramento is home.

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