Scientists measure how much a glacier has shrunk between years by looking at the difference in how much snow falls in winter, and how much ice melts in the summer. This summer, the data shows that the Alps’ glaciers are expected to lose the highest level of mass in at least 60 years.
An obviously extreme season
Following a winter with less snowfall than usual, the Alps faced two big early summer heatwaves, with the more recent one in July bringing temperatures of almost 30 degrees Celsius in the Swiss mountain village of Zermatt.
The heatwave in July has resulted in another broken record in the Alps: The elevation at which water froze was measured at 5,184 meters, a 40-70% increase compared to the normal summer level of 3,000-3,500 meters.
“It’s really obvious that this is an extreme season,” Swiss glaciologist Andreas Linsbauer pointed out in an interview with Reuters.
While glaciers are melting all over the world (faster than ever), the ones in the European Alps are vanishing more quickly than in other places as the temperature in the Alps is increasing twice as quickly as the global average – and because the Alps’ glaciers are smaller and have less ice cover.
According to the 2019 IPCC report, the glaciers in the Alps are melting so quickly that many will disappear in the future even if we take significant action now to limit our emissions.
On the other hand, if we don’t manage to limit our emissions and allow them to rise instead, the Alps’ glaciers will lose over 80% of their mass by 2050.
And if we see more years like 2022 in the future, Glacier Monitoring Switzerland (GLAMOS) leader Matthias Huss warns that the glaciers in the Alps could disappear even sooner.
“We are seeing model results expected a few decades in the future are happening now,” Huss said. “I did not expect to see such an extreme year so early in the century.”
Shifting borders and endangering lives and the economy
Melting glaciers are already putting lives and livelihoods at risk. In Italy, a tragic avalanche killed 11 people in early July when exceptionally high temperatures caused a glacier to collapse.
Those high temperatures, the drought – the worst in 70 years – and the significant lack of rainfall in the previous months have forced the Italian government to declare a state of emergency in five northern regions.
More recently, the melting of one glacier in the European Alps has shifted the border between Italy and Switzerland. The border between these two countries ran along a drainage divide that has now been changed as a result of a melting glacier.
In Switzerland, where tourism accounts for around 2.9% of GDP and employs over 180,000 people, the residents fear that the melting glaciers in the Alps could hurt ski resort businesses that rely on the glaciers for tourism.
For Switzerland in particular, it’s not just a matter of the economy and livelihoods, but of national identity as well.
As Swiss hiker Bernardin Chavaillaz told Reuters, losing the glaciers “means losing our national heritage, our identity.”
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com – In the Featured Photo: If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the Alps glaciers are expected to lose more than 80% of their current mass by 2100. Photo credit: Flickr.com