• 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
Former Coop Bank CEO faces three-year ban
FINMA found irregularities at the bank. Photo: Coop Bank

Former Coop Bank CEO faces three-year ban

The Swiss Financial Supervisory Authority (FINMA) has banned former Coop Bank CEO Andreas Waespi from any managerial role for three years after it was found he manipulated share prices at the bank. READ  

Federal law aims to ease Swiss rent rises
New tenants will now have the right to know the rent paid by their predecessors. Photo: Ruth Hartnup

Federal law aims to ease Swiss rent rises

Anyone taking on a new lease on a rental property in Switzerland will have the right to know what rent the landlord charged the previous tenants under new changes to the tenancy law. READ  

Weapons stockpile found in home near Interlaken
Police took two days to take an inventory of the weapons (not those pictured). Photo: AFP

Weapons stockpile found in home near Interlaken

Police have seized a stash of around 2,000 weapons and ammunition hoarded by a 68-year-old man in his Unterseen home, near Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland. READ  

Federer struggles to win opener at Paris Masters
Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Federer struggles to win opener at Paris Masters

Switzerland’s Roger Federer struggled at times but finally prevailed in three sets in his opening match at the Paris Masters tennis tournament against hard-serving Frenchman Jérémy Chardy. READ  

Nestlé to 'employ' robot clerks in Japan stores
Photo: AFP

Nestlé to 'employ' robot clerks in Japan stores

Swiss-based food giant Nestlé says its Japan unit is hiring 1,000 robots as sales clerks at stores across the country. READ  

Lagging Swiss ease 'barriers' for business
Switzerland has made it easier to start a business by introducing online procedures, report says. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Lagging Swiss ease 'barriers' for business

Switzerland may be best in the world for competitiveness but when it comes to ease of starting a business the Alpine country lags behind 19 other countries — although it has improved over the past year, a new World Bank report says. READ  

Bern police track clues on 50 armed robbers
The Reithalle, seen here as it looked in 2003, is used by young people in Bern as a centre for alternative culture. Photo: Roland Zumbühl/Picswiss

Bern police track clues on 50 armed robbers

Bern police are seeking witnesses after a bizarre robbery involving 50 masked gunmen at an alternative culture centre in the Swiss capital at the weekend. READ  

Neuchâtel tech firm unveils white solar panel
Christophe Ballif, head of CSEM's solar panel team, and staff show off white panel. Photo: CSEM

Neuchâtel tech firm unveils white solar panel

A non-profit technology company based in Neuchâtel has unveiled what it describes as the first white solar panel in the world. READ  

Swiss Ebola vaccine trials cleared to start
Ebola poster in Liberia. Photo: AFP

Swiss Ebola vaccine trials cleared to start

Ebola vaccine trials are set to start in Switzerland this week after receiving the green light from the country's authorities, the Geneva-based World Health Organization said on Tuesday. READ  

New products push up Novartis Q3 earnings
Photo: Sebastien Bozon/AFP

New products push up Novartis Q3 earnings

Basel-based pharmaceuticals giant Novartis on Tuesday said that strong sales of new products had helped push its net profit up 45 percent in the third quarter from the same period a year earlier, despite competition from copycat generic drugs. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
National
Job candidates unhappy with hiring process in Switzerland
National
Glacier 3000 opens new foot bridge spanning two mountains in Vaud
National
Swiss seek special Unesco heritage listing for yodelling and watchmaking
International
Switzerland regarded as best place in world for expats: global survey
National
Red faces at Migros over Hitler and Mussolini coffee cream pots
National
Quarter of workers in Switzerland 'stressed out': new survey
Travel
Lonely Planet ranks Zermatt among top places to visit in 2015
National
Majority of Swiss back proposed new immigration curbs: poll
Features
Eritrean asylum seekers find refuge in Swiss monastery town
National
Expat American professor disputes 'unjust' Swiss citizenship rejection
National
Sputtering eurozone drags down Swiss economic growth forecast
Features
Swiss-based English expat writer lauds immigrant 'brains and brawn'
International
Our survey: Switzerland third priciest for food and drink from back home
National
Zurich market gardener sets world 'record' for heaviest pumpkin
National
Report: Switzerland's residents richer than before economic crash
Features
Geneva lab sleuths use high tech to help art world uncover fakes
National
Father of Scot missing since early September fears Swiss trauma
National
Foreign women give birth to rising share of newborns: latest figures
National
'Giant's penis' bloom in Basel uni botanical garden bigger than ever
National
Switzerland's voters reject public health insurance proposal
National
Zooming foreign immigration continues to boost Swiss population
National
Scientific study rings alarm over wellbeing of Swiss cows with bells
National
Geneva MP seeks ban on charging for tap water in restaurants
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
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

2,194
jobs available