How long will our glaciers survive?
Our project is about the glacier melt process. We want to show, how dangerous glacier melt for the world is and how we can reduce glacier melt on long terms. In this occasion, we did also interviews with three scientists and went even on an field trip to the Aletsch Glacier, the largest glacier in the Alps.
And not to forget, we have taken up the challenge of collaboration; in the framework of the Triangles we have shared ideas and experiences with the teams from the Basque Country (Spain) and Kerala (India) and communicated the results below in this article.
What is a glacier?
A glacier is a larger area in the high mountains over which ice masses extend. The ice mass are formed by the snow melting from the mountains. Every glacier consists of three layers: snow, firn and at the bottom is ice. Firn is formed when snow begins to thaw, freezes, then thaws again and freezes again.
In the course of time, the snowflakes become coarser and icier. When fresh snow falls, the grains of firn are compressed by the weight of the snow.
Moraine = Irregular mass of unstratified glacial drift, chiefly boulders, gravel, sand, and clay
Terminal moraine = A moraine dropped by a glacier at its end when the ice is at its maximum extent
Glacier valley = A glacier usually originating in a cirque at a valley head
Outwash plain = It’s a plateau formed of glaciofluvial deposits due to meltwater
Firn = Snow, that has been left over from past seasons and has been recrystallized
The melting of glaciers
Since the middle of the 19th century, a significant decline in glaciers has been observed almost worldwide. This process is called glacier melt or in other words retreat of glaciers (wikipedia.org). What is meant by this is a long-term loss of mass of the glaciers.
Swiss glaciers in danger
Generally, the melting of the Swiss glaciers can be observed for a long time. Since the end of the «Little Ice Age» around 1850, the volume of Swiss glaciers has already decreased by 50%!
With the rising of the temperature, the glaciers are melting at a faster rate in summer and the precipitation is falling more and more in the form of rain. In this way, the ice masses melt away and the most important storage size “glacier” in the water balance is melting away. That’s an underrated tragedy for our nature.
There are in total 22 glaciers in Switzerland. Most of them (14 glaciers) are in the canton of Valais. The biggest is called «Big Aletsch» or simply ««Aletsch Glacier» (wikipedia.org). This glacier has a surface of 78,49 square kilometers. [a]
The future of the Swiss glaciers
Under the current climatic conditions, the glaciers are still large. If the climate remained as it is today, the glaciers would lose around half of their current volume over the next few decades.
By the year 2085, scientists expect a temperature increase of three degrees Celsius! This will have a negative effect on the Swiss glaciers: According to the models, only 20 to 30 % of today’s glacier volume will remain by the year 2100, mostly in the “catchment area” of the Rhone thanks to the biggest and largest glacier of Switzerland and of the Alps, the “Aletsch Glacier”. [b]
Causes of glacier melt
The decisive factor for the continued existence of a glacier is its mass balance, which is the difference between accumulation (such as snowfall, deposition of snowdrifts and avalanches, condensation of atmospheric water vapor and freezing of rainwater) and ablation (melt, sublimation as well as the termination of avalanches).
Each glacier consists of a nutrient and a consumption area. In the nutrient area, at least part of the snow is retained even during the summer and is then transformed into glacier ice. In the consumption area, on the other hand, ablation predominates over replenishment from snow. These two areas are separated by the equilibrium line. Along this line, ablation in summer corresponds to accumulation in winter. [c]
In contrast to air temperature movement, there weren’t perceptible trends for precipitation. But in Canada, Northern Europe, the West Indies and Eastern Australia precipitation was higher during the 20th century than in the 19th century. Declines of up to 50% have been measured particularly in West and East Africa and in western Latin America. [d]
Glacier melt worldwide
Because of climate change, both air temperatures and precipitation in the form of snow can change and thus shift the mass balance. These indicators currently provide information about the causes of glacier retreat: In most regions of the world, temperatures rise mainly as a result of human greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Fourth Assessment Report of 2007, the global average air temperature near the ground rose by 0.74 ° C between 1906 and 2005.
The number of glacier advances increased from the number 1100 from 43 to 123, and has been falling unusually rapidly since the beginning of industrialization.
The initial trigger for the retreat of the glaciers from the year 1850 onwards, at least in the Alps, can be assumed to be a lowering of the albedo (fraction of radiation reflected away by a surface) of the glaciers due to soot particles released in the course of industrialization. [e]
The biggest glacier worldwide is the «Lambert-Glacier» in the east of the Antarctica. This glacier is 400 kilometers long and 50 kilometers wide.
Reasons for glaciers melting
- The production of CO₂
- The intensive burning of fossil energy (fuel)
- The extensive deforestation process
Consequences of the melting of glaciers
Among the consequences of global glacier retreat, those two core problems are described in more detail, which intervene most sensitively in the natural ecosystem and which are likely to have a decisive influence on the living conditions of a still unpredictable proportion of the world population in the future: the rise in sea levels and water shortages. On the other hand, other types of effects, such as those on glacier tourism, are of secondary importance.
Rise in sea level
Between 1993 and 2003 the sea level rose by 3.1 mm per year. In its fourth assessment report published in 2007, the intergovernmental committee on climate change (IPCC) estimates that the Greenland ice sheet contributed 0.21 mm and the Antarctic with 0.21 mm to the sea level rise observed so far. Melting glaciers have a significant share of 0.77 mm.
In some regions, the meltwater of the glaciers is temporarily the main source of drinking water during the course of the year, which is why a local disappearance of glaciers can have serious consequences for the population, agriculture and water-intensive industries. Asian cities in the Himalayan catchment area and South American settlements will be particularly affected. [f]
Eruptions from glacial lakes
When the glaciers melt, rocks and rubble break off incessantly in areas with high relief energy (value to compare the actual height differences of different terrain sections) such as the Himalayas or the Alps. This rubble collects as a moraine at the end of the glacier and forms a natural dam. The dam prevents the meltwater from flowing away, so that behind it a continuously larger and deeper glacial lake is created.
Other consequences of glacier melt:
- Imbalance in the food chain. The habitats of marine and terrestrial species remain changing and the personal cycle is not preserved
- Temperature and precipitation imbalance
- Risks to human and animal life
- Melting of polar and mountain glaciers
- Recycling of melt water
- Use of white tarpaulins to protect the glacier from sun
- Use of artificial snow
- Use of geotextiles
The extent and significance of the increased glacier retreat in connection with the observed and in some cases still to be expected drastic consequences illustrate the need to counteract it with measures to conserve resources, increase water efficiency and especially with effective climate protection. [e]
Our visit on the Aletschgletscher
On the 28 May 2021, Genti, Tiziano and Mrs. Suter visited with ETH scientists and investors from “La Prairie” the Aletschgletscher.
We could finally see, how big the Aletschgeltscher was and we could imagine how the Aletschgletscher lost on ice mass.
On the other side, it was very difficult to breath on the Aletschgletscher.
Nevertheless, it is important to continue to measure the snow mass on the Aletschgletscher and to inform the population of the loss or, in a positive case, win of the ice mass.
There are a lot of climate movements: There is Climatestrike (climatestrike.ch, de), Greenpeace, « Klimaunion» in Germany (klimaunion.de), BaselWandel (baselwandel.ch, de), Fridays for Future (fridaysforfuture.org), Strike for Future (strikeforfuture.ch, de) and many more (wikipedia.org).
Interview with «Team Basque»
How many glaciers are there nearby?
Since 2011, the Pyrenean glaciers have lost 63 hectares of ice and some 19 million tons of water. It is more or less what fits in a small reservoir. In 1850 there were 52 glaciers in the Pyrenees. In 2020 there are only 19. Their disappearance, which is expected in just 30 years, will not be an environmental disaster, as they store relatively little water.
Which school subjects are talking about “glacier melt” in your school?
We in our school have subjects to choose from and in our case we have not chosen biology and geology, but we have asked our classmates and they have told us that they have not studied it yet.
Do you think that something could happen, if a glacier starts to melt entirely? (Natur catastrophe like a Zunami, an earthquake…)
We believe that if the glaciers began to melt, the world would have many consequences, such as the increase in sea water levels, the disappearance of many species, and there would be much more salt water and less fresh water.
Why do you think glaciers are melting? What’s, in your opinion, the reason?
We believe that glaciers are melting due to the rapidity of climate change, the reason is because we are destroying the world by extinguishing animals.
Collaboration with «Team Kerala»
We worked together with «Team Kerala» in order to compare the disaster of glacier melt and flood. Both teams did a survey and shared their results on the website «dontwastemy.energy».
Interview with Sanja Hosi by e-mail, leader of Hydrological Commission of UZH (scnat.ch):
What are concrete measures to save our glaciers?
Everything that stops global warming helps to reduce glacier retreat in the long term (the adaptation period is long, however: even if global warming stopped today, most glaciers would still lose a lot of mass and adapt to the rise in temperature of recent years/ decades – therefore we have to act now).
Is artificial snow really the right means to save glaciers?
No glacier can be saved with artificial snow. It takes an immense amount of energy to make artificial snow… that would be counterproductive.
Is there any way to stop the general rise in sea levels?
If we could stop the glacial melt, the proportion the rise in sea level associated with glacier melt will fall away.
What should we do with the meltwater runoff?
What are the consequences of eruptions from glacial lakes? Regarding the glacial lakes: these are questions about natural hazards that often have very local characteristics (permafrost distribution, geometry of the glacier,…), there are many factors that come together; as e.g. the current case in India has shown. It seems that lakes are increasingly will be in the future. The extent to which these then represent a hazard or a risk depends on many local factors.
Are there any new causes for the melting of glaciers?
There are actually no new causes for the glacier melt. Knowledge is explainable by physics. But there are better data around the world for Glacier distribution and ice thicknesses. Article: Accelerated global glacier mass loss in the early twenty-first century (nature.com). And some things seem to be accelerating where they were until recently said it will take longer.
Interview with Marcel Haenggi by e-mail, member of the Swiss Climate Protection Association (klimaschutz-schweiz.ch), scientific assistant:
How can we as human beings actually save our glaciers? What countermeasures do we have?
We have to stop global warming and to do this we have to stop the emission of greenhouse gases. However: glaciers react with a delay. If it didn’t get any warmer from now on, the glacier melt would still continue for some time. In the Alps, only a small part of the glaciers can be saved. There are also local measures – you can cover glaciers with protective films or artificially snow them. But these are rather desperate rescue attempts…
Is artificial snow really the right means to save glaciers?
I don’t know my way around that. I only know that this is being proposed by well-known scientists, for example the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in order to prevent the melting of the Antarctic.
But the people who propose it say themselves that it is a desperate proposal that is also very energy-intensive and has other ecological disadvantages. Article on that topic: Sea level rise: West Antarctic ice collapse may be prevented by snowing ocean water onto it (pik-potsdam.de).
I think the energy consumption for making artificial snow is obviously very high and not feasible for entire glaciers. If it is about small sections, e.g. the transition from one station to the Ski slope, then that brings something locally, but it is for entire glaciers pointless. Glaciers are climate indicators and are controlled by the climate. If the climate is “hostile to glaciers”, there aren’t good long-term forecasts. And therefore no alternatives to reduce further warming.
Is there any way to stop the general rise in sea levels?
The same applies here: Even if global warming stopped immediately, the rise in sea levels would continue for a long time because glaciers are still melting. The big question is whether tipping points have already been exceeded beyond which a stop is no longer possible.
Today it is too warm for the glaciers of Greenland, for example. But they still remain reasonably stable because the ice cover in Central Greenland is so thick and the glacier surface is therefore high.
When the glaciers melt, their surface comes to lie deeper; but further down it is less cold – a typical feedback loop.
What to do with the meltwater runoff?
It beats me; I don’t think there is much that can be done about it.
The eruption of glacial rivers has what consequences? (Eruptions from glacial lakes)
There was just recently an article in the Guardian: Glacial lakes threaten millions with flooding as planet heats up (theguardian.com).
Live on the “Aletsch Glacier”, Interview with Prof. Dr. Daniel Farinotti, Glaciology (ethz.ch):
Is “artificial snow” efficient enough to save glaciers?
It is instantly efficient, but in general I think that glaciers are condemned to die. So the glaciers won’t grow in the future.
Do you know countermeasures to stop the glacier melt?
Artificial snow is only one possibility. Another one is to reduce the emissions.
Will you vote for the “Glacier initiative”?
Is it realistic to reduce the emissions to zero by the year 2050 as the Paris climate agreement wanted?
I think it’s not so realistic.
Is water more important than the fundamental part of a glacier?
Sure it is! A glacier consists to 99% of water.
Genti and I have had both positive and negative experiences in our research.
We considered the openness of the scientists, the cooperation with the teams abroad (Spain and India) and the quantity of information on glacier retreat as positive.
Genti and I considered the arduous experience of the project trip on the Aletsch Glacier to be negative. Because it was very difficult for us to breathe during our research work.
Our Recommendation & Conclusions
In Switzerland there will be in initiative to save glaciers (gletscher-initiative.ch, DE), which will be presented to the Swiss voting population.
To summarize, we have to confirm that glaciers are seriously in danger. To change the situation rapidly, we need to reach everybody in our society, inform and convince them to share the information with other people. The participation with a climate strike can maybe be politically decisive, to avoid a part of the dramatic situation of glaciers.
Genti Ahmeti and Tiziano Di Paola
Raquel Kellermann, English teacher at the KV Wetzikon
On-topic posts on dontwastemy.energy
Glacier melting & Floods – Climate crisis’ Effects
Survey on climate-impacting measures