IceWatcher: The app tracking Switzerland’s melting glaciers

Climate change-induced melting of Switzerland's glaciers can now be tracked via a new app.

IceWatcher: The app tracking Switzerland's melting glaciers

Mountaineers who stumble across archaeological relics revealed by retreating glaciers in the Swiss Alps can now use a new app to log the location and help preserve their findings.

The southwestern Wallis region said Tuesday the IceWatcher mobile phone application should help them collect and store glacial finds as quickly as possible.

Wallis contains several important glaciers, including the Aletsch, the largest in the Alps.

Due to global warming, glaciers are releasing relics of up to thousands of years, the Wallis cantonal authorities said in a statement.

“Preserved and isolated by ice, these elements are particularly fragile as soon as they are released.

“The cold preserves certain organic material in a remarkable way, but once out of this protective covering, the relics start degrading, which can quickly lead to their disappearance.”

Glaciers in the Swiss Alps are in steady decline, losing a full two percent of their volume last year alone, according to the Swiss Academies of Science.

READ MORE: Swiss hold high-altitude ‘funeral march’ for lost glacier

And even if the 2015 Paris Agreement calling for global warming to be capped at two degrees Celsius were to be implemented, two-thirds of Alpine glaciers will likely be lost, according to a 2019 study by the ETH technical university in Zurich.

Amid surging temperatures, glaciologists predict that 95 percent of the 4,000 Alpine glaciers could disappear by the end of this century.

While archaeologists lament the devastating toll of climate change, many acknowledge it has created an opportunity to dramatically expand understanding of mountain life millennia ago.

Mountaineers with mobiles

The Wallis cantonal archeological office (OCA) is developing tools for tracking objects released by melting glaciers. But given the sheer “impossibility” of monitoring the whole surface area, the region is calling on the help of mountaineers with mobiles.

“Most discoveries are not made by archaeologists,” Romain Andenmatten, archaeologist and scientific officer at the Wallis OCA, told AFP. He estimated there were five to 10 discoveries of glacial archeology per year, of varying interest.

The free-to-download app’s home screen tells users not to touch anything they find. Then they select the type of object discovered, take a close-up photo with a comparable object for scale and a wider shot of the landscape indicating where the object was found.

Along with geolocation data, the information will be compiled and the OCA will then assess the relevance of the findings and get to work on collecting and conserving them.

The app is currently only used by the Wallis OCA, but Andenmatten stressed they would pass on any findings reported elsewhere. He also hoped it app could eventually be used everywhere to log new discoveries.

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What’s next after Switzerland’s ‘extremely worrying’ heatwave?

Switzerland hit record high temperatures for June for the first time in 75 years on Sunday but what's the forecast for the coming days and weeks?

What's next after Switzerland's 'extremely worrying' heatwave?

With 36.9C recorded in Beznau, in the canton of Aargau on Sunday, Switzerland equalled the high temperature record held by Basel since 1947.

Other Swiss towns experienced sweltering temperatures as well: In Neuchâtel the mercury rose to 36.5C, in Sion it hit 36.4C and  in Lausanne it was 32.6C, according to MeteoNews.

Temperatures were decidedly more pleasant at high altitudes in the mountains: the temperature of 16.9C was recorded at 2,900 metres in the shade on the Diablerets glacier.

Whilst lower down at the Moléson in Fribourg, which stands at 2,000 metres, a more seasonal 24 degrees was recorded.

Like its neighbours, “Switzerland is not immune to brief and extreme phenomena”, climatologist Martin Beniston, honorary professor at the University of Geneva, said in an interview with Tribune de Genève.

And if high temperatures continue — as they are forecast for next days — “the very dry ground will reinforce the warming, it is a vicious circle”, said Vincent Devantay, meteorologist from MeteoNews.

This means higher risk of fires, especially in the forest. “They have really dried up compared to last year. The lack of rain is becoming extremely worrying”, he pointed out.

Thunderstorms are predicted in parts of Switzerland towards the end of the week but they will not necessarily prevent the drought, Beniston said.

What the soil needs are “gentle showers, repeated, for two to three weeks”, rather than occasional heavy thunderstorms that don’t provide enough moisture for the earth’s deeper layers.

Continued rains are not expected in the immediate future and  forecasts for the summer months predict more intense heatwaves.

READ MORE: How this week’s heatwave will hit Switzerland and how to stay cool

What are the consequences of the heatwave and no rain?

As The Local already reported, Swiss glaciers are now melting faster than usual, partly due to the early heat wave in May.
READ MORE: Why Switzerland’s glaciers are melting faster than usual this summer

But there is more.

Hydrologist Massimiliano Zappa, also warns that current very high temperatures and no rain could speed up the drought across Switzerland, especially as Swiss rivers and streams “have a lower flow than the average of previous years”.

Water rationing could become inevitable, he said.

 “In Spain and southern Italy, for example, people know how to get by with little water, because they have been educated to meet their daily needs with less. But this is not part of Swiss mentality”, Zappa said.

The heat wave could also impact railway installations as well as electronic devices, according to Le Temps newspaper.

“Overheated smartphones, expanding rails, and computer fans running at full speed: high temperatures put a strain on infrastructure and our everyday objects, while requiring more energy”, Le Temps said.