• 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)

Don't miss...X
Left Right

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Burkhalter hails Second World War mobilization
Swiss President Didier Burkhalter. Photo: FDFA

Burkhalter hails Second World War mobilization

Swiss President Didier Burkhalter on Monday thanked the country’s citizens who mobilized 75 years earlier to defend the mountain country when the Second World War broke out. READ  

Swiss pays UK and Austria over tax dodging
Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Swiss pays UK and Austria over tax dodging

Switzerland said on Monday that it had completed a programme to pay Britain and Austria hundreds of millions of euros in settlements for past tax-dodging by their citizens. READ  

Japan Novartis unit failed to report 'drug deaths'
Photo: Sebastien Bozon/AFP

Japan Novartis unit failed to report 'drug deaths'

The Japanese unit of Swiss pharma giant Novartis has admitted it did not report more than 2,500 cases of serious side effects in patients using its leukaemia and other cancer drugs, reportedly including some fatalities. READ  

Swiss health insurance premiums 'set to jump'
Federal Health Minister Alain Berset: set to release official figures later this month. Photo: Federal Assembly

Swiss health insurance premiums 'set to jump'

Swiss health insurance premiums are set to rise steeply overall next year, according to figures revealed by a Sunday newspaper. READ  

Presented by St Bernard Assure Limited
Car insurance made easy online with St Bernard
Photo: St Bernard Assure Limited

Car insurance made easy online with St Bernard

A new car insurance firm has ripped up the rule book when it comes to selling policies in Switzerland, by cutting out the middle-man and passing the savings onto their customers with its online only model. The Local finds out more. READ  

Bencic and Federer give Swiss double boost
Switzerland's Bencic celebrates at US Open. Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images North America/AFP

Bencic and Federer give Swiss double boost

Seventeen-year-old Belinda Bencic on Sunday became the youngest women's quarterfinalist at the US Open since 1997, giving Switzerland a double boost after Roger Federer moved into the last 16. READ  

Air show draws large crowds to Payerne
Patrouille Suisse in action. Photo: Matthias Kabel

Air show draws large crowds to Payerne

An estimated 160,000 people turned out for the opening weekend of Switzerland’s biggest air show at the Payerne military aerodrome in the canton of Vaud. READ  

Bolivian bus crash claims three Swiss lives
Route in the Uyuni region of Bolivia. Photo: Hermes Images/AFP

Bolivian bus crash claims three Swiss lives

A bus accident in Bolivia over the weekend claimed the lives of three Swiss citizens and at least six other people, according to press reports. READ  

Novartis heart drug billed 'blockbuster' after tests
Photo: Sebastien Bozon/AFP

Novartis heart drug billed 'blockbuster' after tests

An experimental drug from Swiss pharma giant Novartis reduced deaths from chronic heart failure by 20 percent compared with an existing treatment, according to the results of a vast new study. READ  

Kavcics's injury gives  Wawrinka US Open break
Wawrinka eases into fourth round. Photo: Don Emmert/AFP

Kavcics's injury gives Wawrinka US Open break

Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka reached the fourth round of the US Open tennis tournament by walkover on Saturday when Slovenian Blaz Kavcic withdrew from their third-round match with a right foot injury. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Sponsored Article
Car insurance made easy online with St Bernard
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
National
Swiss policeman belatedly honoured for saving Jews from Holocaust
National
'Suicide tourists' to Switzerland double in three years: study
National
Swiss Post SMS scheme gets stamp of approval after pilot project
Business & Money
American tax evasion crackdown hits Swiss private banks' bottom line
Politics
Woman accuses Swiss politician in nude selfies scandal of lying
National
Villagers in Graubünden valley reject hydro plant to protect vultures
Business & Money
Court rules against appellation for absinthe from Neuchâtel valley
National
Two hundred passengers rescued after landslide derails Swiss train
Travel
Switzerland remains world champion for per capita train travel
Culture
Social media backlash forces Polanski to bow out of Locarno film festival
National
Two policemen identified among three Israelis killed in train crash
Features
Untouched Alps: The Local explores Switzerland's only national park
National
Swiss government secretary tweets nude ‘selfies’ taken at work
International
Swiss couples fined in Ibiza for making love in van without seatbelts
National
Schumacher medical record theft suspect hangs himself in Zurich cell
National
Thousands of motorists drive without permits in Switzerland: report
National
Switzerland celebrates the centennial of national park in Graubünden
National
Animal rights group protests over dead fish throwing at festival
National
Federer forced to tear down kids' play area at Graubünden holiday home
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

1,973
jobs available