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Swiss glaciers melting at an alarming rate

Glaciers in Switzerland, as well as in North and South America, are shrinking each year.

(Keystone / AP Photo / Greenpeace / Daniel Beltra)

Swiss glaciers are continuing to shrink, posing a potential risk of flooding and mudslides, according to initial results from an annual survey of Swiss glaciers.

Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology found that of 76 glaciers studied, 68 showed clear signs of melting. Only three glaciers gained in size while five remained the same as in 1999.

Martin Hoelzle, a hydrology and glaciology expert who participated in the study, says that melting ice causes lakes to form on and around the glaciers, which can lead to "a serious risk of flooding and landslides".

He cites two recent examples of glacial shrinkage that highlight these risks.

In July, melting ice caused the "tongue" of the Allalien glacier in the southern Valais Alps to break off. That sent one million cubic metres of ice crashing down the steep mountain.

In August 1999, part of the Gutz glacier, near the popular resort of Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland, crumbled into the valley below.

Hoelzle says the melting is not just confined to Switzerland, however. In North and South America, the glaciers are shrinking faster than anticipated.

"The behaviour of the big glaciers in North and South America is of huge importance because they make a considerable contribution to the global rise of sea levels," Hoelzle says.

Authorities have kept careful glacier measurements since the 19th century. A full report on the state of Switzerland's glaciers is due out early next year.

swissinfo with agencies

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