Swiss perspectives in 10 languages

Swiss glaciers shrink at unprecedented rate

All Switzerland's glaciers are shrinking rapidly Keystone

Scientists have discovered that Switzerland’s glaciers are retreating at the fastest rate recorded since measuring began in 1880.

A report by the glaciology commission at the Swiss Academy of Sciences says that all Switzerland’s glaciers shrank last year.

The measure of retreat among the glaciers observed over the period 2002-2003 varied from one metre – at the Schwarz glacier in canton Bern – to 152 metres at the Trift glacier, also in canton Bern.

According to Andreas Bauser, one of the scientists involved in the report, the shrinking is not directly linked to the record high temperatures of last summer but is due to long-term changes in climate.

“This is a long-term glacial retreat, which started at the end of the last so-called ice age 150 years ago,” he told swissinfo.

Bauder says climate change can take at least two years to affect measurements of the glaciers’ length, and one-off hot summers may have no effect at all.

However, the glaciers’ mass can react more quickly to changing temperatures.

Readings for the Basodino (canton Ticino) Gries (canton Valais) and Silvretta (canton Graubunden) glaciers, show that last year’s exceptionally hot summer caused their volume to shrink.

All three lost substantial mass, with the Gries glacier losing as much as five per cent of its volume.

Water shortage

Environmental specialists are now sure that global warming is the main cause of retreating glaciers.

Organisations such as the WWF have warned that if drastic action isn’t taken to curb the phenomenon, the world’s glaciers could disappear all together, resulting in water shortages for billions of people.

Glaciers contain 70 per cent of the world’s freshwater reserves, and Switzerland’s glaciers provide much of Europe’s water.

If glaciers disappeared, summer water levels in Europe’s rivers would drop significantly. Over half the water in the Rhine during June, July and August is glacial melt water.

The falling river levels would seriously affect crop irrigation and freight traffic on the waterways.

For the WWF, which has used Switzerland’s glacial retreat in campaigns to pressure the government to do more to lower carbon dioxide emissions, the retreat of the glaciers is one of the most visible indicators of the effects of global warming.

swissinfo with agencies

The measure of retreat among the glaciers observed by the commission varied from one metre to 152 metres over the period 2002 to 2003.

The Academy of Sciences says long-term climate change is the main cause of the glaciers’ retreat and not last summer’s record temperatures.

Switzerland’s glaciers have been retreating since the last “ice age” 150 years ago.

Organisations such as the WWF have warned that if drastic action isn’t taken to curb global warming, the world’s glaciers could disappear all together.

Popular Stories

Most Discussed

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here . Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR