Climate change

Why melting glaciers affect us all

This content was published on October 15, 2020 - 13:30
Corina Staffe (Illustration)

Alpine glaciers could disappear by the end of the century. The consequences will be felt not only in Switzerland’s mountains but throughout Europe. 

That glaciers are melting is nothing new: since 1850, the volume of Alpine glaciers has decreased by about 60%. What is surprising, however, is the rate at which the Alpine “giants” are shrinking. In 2019, loss of glacial mass reached record levels, according to the Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences. In just two weeks during the summer, 800 million tonnes of snow and ice were lost, the equivalent of an ice cube with sides about a kilometre long, says Matthias Huss, head of the Swiss glacier-monitoring network. Despite the relatively mild summer, even 2020 “can be considered a bad year for the glaciers”, Huss says.

Since the pre-industrial era, the temperature in Switzerland has increased by almost 2° Celsius, twice the global average. At this rate, half of the 1,500 Alpine glaciers – including the majestic Aletsch glacier, a UNESCO heritage site – will disappear in the next 30 years. And if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, all glaciers in Switzerland and Europe risk melting almost completely by the end of the century, researchers warn. 

Will the decline of glaciers,a recurrent phenomenon throughout Earth’s history – albeit over longer periods – have a negative impact on our future? It’s hard to say. It certainly forces us to prepare for new scenarios. 

In Switzerland, one such scenario is the increased risk of natural disasters such as floods, debris flows and landslides. The lakes that form inside glaciers risk suddenly spilling downhill, wiping out villages and infrastructure. And with the thinning of the ice and the permafrost layer, the mountains are becoming less stable. Images of the subsidence of the Alpine slopes are revealing. 

With the melting of glaciers, Switzerland is also losing a major water reserve, estimated to contain enough drinking water for the Swiss population for 60 years.

Of course, Switzerland will continue to have enough water, even if its population rises from the current 8.5 million to ten million in 2050. However, it will be necessary to change the methods of managing rainfall – which will become increasingly liquid and less snowy – to avoid water conflicts, says Paolo Burlando, professor of hydrology and water management at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich. The creation of multipurpose storage basins in the mountains, in areas free from ice, could offer new opportunities for hydroelectric production and agriculture. 

The situation in Europe could be more problematic, especially in regions located hundreds of kilometres from the Alps. Due to the lower contribution of melting snow and glaciers, the flow of large European rivers – the Rhône, Rhine, Danube and Po – could decrease considerably in the summer months. A drop in the level of rivers and lakes will make it harder to travel by water and to transport goods to and from Switzerland.

To preserve this heritage of national importance that has helped make Switzerland known worldwide, scientists have undertaken a race against time. On the Morteratsch glacier in canton Graubünden, eastern Switzerland, a project has been launched to protect the glacier with artificial snow; a system that, if successful, can also be used in the Himalayas and the Andes. 

But science won’t be able to do anything if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. In Switzerland, the struggle to protect glaciers is thus shifting from the mountains to political chambers and ballot boxes.

Handed in last November, the so-called glacier initiative calls for the objectives of the Paris Agreement to be anchored in the constitution and for Switzerland’s net emissions to be zero by 2050. The federal government also aims to achieve climate neutrality by the middle of the century. It is, however, opposed to the introduction of a general ban on fossil fuels and combustibles, as advocated by the Swiss Climate Protection Association, which is behind the initiative.

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