• Switzerland edition
 
Shrinking Swiss glacier highlights warming trend
Photo: Günter Seggebäing

Shrinking Swiss glacier highlights warming trend

Published: 20 Sep 2013 14:36 GMT+02:00
Updated: 20 Sep 2013 14:36 GMT+02:00

The walk was not always this long. In the mid-19th century, the Morteratsch glacier stretched all the way to the station in this hamlet in the canton of Graubünden, in southeastern Switzerland.
   
By 1900, people had to walk about a kilometre to touch its shimmering blue surface.
   
In the past century, the ice has shrunk around 2.4 kilometres (1.5 miles), and signposts marking the glacier's "tongue" over the past century point to a decline that in recent years has accelerated dramatically.
   
"Each year we come here, we have to walk further to get to the glacier," said Joerg Wyss, a 43-year-old tourist from Lucerne, who said he had been visiting Morteratsch for 25 years.
   
Ursula Reis, a 73-year-old from Zurich, said she had been coming for even longer, visiting almost every year since 1953.
   
"I have seen the shrinkage. It's amazing and frightening at the same time," she said.
   
As closely studied by scientists as it is loved by the Swiss, the Morteratsch glacier provides one of the clearest examples of climate change in action, experts say.
   
Like almost all documented Alpine glaciers, it has been steadily shrinking for decades, and only its highest points are expected to see the turn of the next century.
   
"The glaciers are kind of a direct signal of climate change," said Samuel Nussbaumer, a scientist with the World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich.
   
Since 1950, the glacier has shrunk by about 1.6 kilometres (a mile). Its tip today is hidden in a forest of high trees, and even the 2010 signpost is separated by a good 200 metres (yards) of rocks from the glacier mouth, which emits gushing meltwater into an icy river.
   
"This is one part of the Morteratsch glacier where you can really see how fast the ice is melting away," said glacier guide Gian Luck, standing in a rock-strewn area that only three years ago was still covered with a system of ice caves, before they suddenly collapsed and disappeared.
   
A 2011 report from the European Topic Centre on Air Pollution and Climate Change Mitigation, a consortium of institutes known by its acronym of ETC/ACM, found that more than half of the ice-covered areas and probably two-thirds of the ice volume in the Alps had disappeared since 1850.
   
From 2000 to 2010, the Alpine glaciers on average lost more than a metre (3.25 feet) of thickness each year, according to the study.

The rate of shrinkage is increasing

"They are shrinking, and the rate of shrinkage is increasing," Nussbaumer said, adding that while factors like precipitation and wind played a part, rising temperatures were the main explanation.

Glaciers cover some 2,900 square kilometres (1,120 square miles) in the Alps, including 1,342 square kilometres (518 square miles) in Switzerland alone.
   
Scientists have warned that a summer temperature increase of around four degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) from today's levels would leave Europe's biggest mountain range almost ice-less by 2100.
 
The Alps, like the Arctic and the Antarctica Peninsula, are considered a hot-spot where warming can be two or three times greater than the global average.
 
"These ice giants could disappear literally in the space of a human lifetime, or even less," said Sergio Savoia, who heads conservation group WWF's Alpine office in Switzerland, emphasizing the need to "prepare for the serious consequences."
   
Globally, glaciers are one of the main contributors to sea level rise, and their contribution to shrinking shore lines is believed to have doubled in recent decades.
   
An eagerly-awaited UN report on global warming, set to be released in Stockholm on September 27, will for the first time include detailed estimates for melting ice from glaciers and ice sheets in its calculation of sea level rise.
   
The issue of rising sea levels is not as relevant to the Alps though. If all of the region's glaciers melted, this would add only about one millimetre to ocean levels, scientists say.
   
Locally, though, the effects would be dramatic.
   
The thick ice cover functions as a water tower that stores water, releasing it when it is most needed -- in the hot and dry summer months.
   
The Alpine glaciers feed into some of Europe's biggest river systems, including the Rhone, Po and Danube, and if this source disappeared, the effects would be felt across Europe, said Savoia.
   
"It's very hard to predict what will happen when the temperatures rise even more and we no longer have the compensating function of the glaciers," he said.
 
Melting glaciers can also cause natural hazards, ripping open crevasses, creating glacier lakes that can burst suddenly and increasing the risk of flash floods, landslides and mudslides.
   
While the effects of the vanishing Alpine glaciers will mainly be felt locally, only global action to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide can truly slow down the trend, Savoia said.
   
Swiss attempts to cover parts of glaciers with canvas to slow the melting are "a very visual way of declaring our powerlessness," he said.
   
Guenther Baldauf, a 45-year-old German visiting Morteratsch for the first time, expressed awe when he finally reached the glacier tongue.
   
"You walk and you walk, past sign after sign saying 'Here was the glacier. I was here,' but everything is green," he said. "Then suddenly, it is there, and it is really big. It's ice and water, but it's alive. It's like a dinosaur, dying."

Nina Larson/AFP (news@thelocal.ch)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Helicopter crash in Doubs kills five Swiss
The crash happened not far from Montbéliard aerodrome. Photo: Google maps

Helicopter crash in Doubs kills five Swiss

Five Swiss people died and two more were injured on Thursday when their helicopter crashed in France near the border with Switzerland, French officials said. READ  

Swiss winegrowers battle against Asian fruit fly
The harvest starts in earnest this week. Photo: Caroline Bishop

Swiss winegrowers battle against Asian fruit fly

An invasion of Asian fruit flies is likely to slightly diminish the size of grape harvests in Switzerland this month in what is otherwise a good year for Swiss winegrowers. READ  

Father of missing Scot fears Swiss trauma
Missing Fergus McInnes. Photo: Police Scotland

Father of missing Scot fears Swiss trauma

The father of Fergus McInnes, a Scot who disappeared in Switzerland three weeks ago, fears he may have been violently robbed or subjected to a traumatic experience which sparked amnesia. READ  

ETH Zurich retains status in world university list
ETH Zurich remains continental Europe's highest ranked university. Photo: Ed Seymour

ETH Zurich retains status in world university list

Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich is yet again continental Europe’s top university according to the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings for 2014-15. READ  

FC Basel beat lame Liverpool 1-0 at home
Basel's goal-scoring forward Marco Streller (left) vies with Liverpool's Spanish defender Jose Enrique during match. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

FC Basel beat lame Liverpool 1-0 at home

Liverpool became the latest English club to fall victim to FC Basel as the Swiss side triumphed 1-0 in their Champions League Group B clash at the St Jakob-Park on Wednesday. READ  

Woman's potato fall 'not restaurant’s fault': court
Photo: The Local

Woman's potato fall 'not restaurant’s fault': court

A woman who was seriously injured after stepping on a potato in a self-service restaurant in the canton of Zurich has failed to get a court to back her complaint, while a judge warned that it was up to customers to watch where they were walking. READ  

Foreign women have rising share of newborns
Photo: Waltraud Grubitzsch/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign women have rising share of newborns

More than one in three babies were born in Switzerland last year to foreign mothers, a proportion that has doubled in the past 20 years, according to government figures. READ  

National tax planned to cut water micropollutants
The Terre Sainte sewage treatment plant in the canton of Vaud. Photo: Canton of Vaud

National tax planned to cut water micropollutants

Starting in 2016, an annual tax of up to nine francs ($9.43) per resident will help finance equipment in around 100 sewage treatment plants across Switzerland to prevent microscopic pollutants from flowing into lakes and rivers. READ  

UBS pays €1.1-billion bail in French 'tax fraud' case
Photo: UBS

UBS pays €1.1-billion bail in French 'tax fraud' case

Swiss banking giant UBS has made a €1.1-billion ($1.4-billion) bail payment for allegedly helping rich French clients to hide money in Switzerland, a lawyer for the bank said on Tuesday. READ  

Senior dupes European court in suicide snafu
Photo: AFP

Senior dupes European court in suicide snafu

The European rights court on Tuesday withdrew its criticism of Switzerland's assisted suicide laws after it emerged an octogenarian who filed the initial complaint had duped both the court and her lawyer in the case. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
National
Scientific study rings alarm over wellbeing of Swiss cows with bells
Business & Money
Switzerland's residents top world financial wealth list: Allianz report
National
Saint Maurice abbey in Valais celebrates 1,500 years of history
National
Streaming movie video service Netflix arrives in Switzerland
National
Professional Chilean base jumper dives to death in Swiss Alps
Education
ETH Zurich remains top university in Europe: QS world rankings
National
Switzerland's housing vacancy rate jumps: new federal figures
National
Swiss football club fires team masseuse over explicit sex video
National
Geneva police arrest easyJet passenger over hand luggage row
Business & Money
Latest forecasts for Swiss economic growth turn less bullish
Sport
Formula One legend Schumacher to continue treatment at Swiss home
National
Former federal planning official calls for nine Swiss cantons
Features
The Local gets the lowdown on mushroom picking in Switzerland
National
Virgin boss Richard Branson's son rescued from peak of Matterhorn
National
Swiss President Didier Burkhalter's commute turns Twitter sensation
Features
High-tech cameras give dizzy view of Eiger's north face (VIDEO)
Politics
Baden municipal council strips 'nude selfies mayor' of duties
Business & Money
Switzerland stays atop competitiveness table for sixth year
National
Federal parliament secretary agrees to step down over nude selfies
National
Swiss residents pick Swedes as ideal European soul mates: survey
National
Zurich officials call project to move prostitutes to 'sex boxes' a success
National
Swiss gays recognized as parents of child born to surrogate mother
Health
Increase in mountain bike accidents keeps Swiss hospitals busy
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

2,110
jobs available