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CLIMATE CRISIS

Why Switzerland’s glaciers are melting faster than usual this summer

Switzerland’s glaciers have been shrinking as a result of climate change, but they are now receding faster than before. These are three reasons why this is happening.

Why Switzerland's glaciers are melting faster than usual this summer
Glaciers are melting faster this year. Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Glaciers in the Swiss Alps are in steady decline, losing  2 percent of their volume last year alone, according to a study published by the Swiss Academies of Science.

While Alpine glaciers have been melting for decades — mostly due to global warming, scientists say — this phenomenon has intensified in the past several months.

Three factors have contributed to this erosion, according to Matthias Huss, according to glaciologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich:

First heat wave of the year already in May

The early heat wave and the warmest May in many decades has impacted a number of Alpine regions, including the Jungfraujoch and Aletsch glaciers.

Temps exceeded above 0 degrees, reinforcing the melting process of the glaciers.

READ MORE: Switzerland’s May temperatures ‘highest in 150 years’

Sahara dust

A cloud of fine sand from Morocco and Algeria that  covered parts of  Switzerland in March and April was not good for the glaciers.

 “The remarkably strong Sahara dust reinforced the melting of glaciers in the short and longer term,” Huss said.

READ MORE: Dust from the Sahara Desert covers parts of Switzerland

Little snow and lots of sun in winter

The effect of Sahara dust was reinforced by the fact that the winter of 2021/2022 was particularly sunny and snowfall was scarce.

This means “the glaciers somehow ran out of ‘food’ in the form of snow. In addition, the melting started very early this spring”, he noted.

Melting ice has formed 1,200 new lakes in formerly glaciated regions of the Swiss Alps since the middle of the 19th century. Around 1,000 of them still exist today, according to the study published by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag).

READ MORE: Climate change: Glacial melt in Switzerland has created 1,000 new lakes

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CLIMATE CRISIS

‘Land unseen in centuries’: Swiss mountain pass ice to melt completely

The thick layer of ice that has covered a Swiss mountain pass for centuries will have melted away completely within a few weeks, a ski resort said this week.

'Land unseen in centuries': Swiss mountain pass ice to melt completely

Following a dry winter, the summer heatwaves hitting Europe have been catastrophic for the Alpine glaciers, which have been melting at an accelerated rate.

The pass between the Scex Rouge and Tsanfleuron glaciers has been iced over since at least the Roman era.

But as both glaciers have retreated, the bare rock of the ridge between the two is beginning to emerge — and will be completely ice-free before the summer is out.

“The pass will be entirely in the open air in a few weeks,” the Glacier 3000 ski resort said in a statement.

A picture taken on August 6, 2022 shows tourists walking next to a meltwater stream flowing from the Tsanfleuron Glacier above Les Diablerets, Switzerland. – Following several heatwaves blamed by scientists on climate change, Switzerland is seeing its alpine glaciers melting at an increasingly rapid rate. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

While the ice measured around 15 metres (50 feet) thick in 2012, the ground underneath “will have completely resurfaced by the end of September”.

Land unseen in centuries

The ridge is at an altitude of 2,800 metres in the Glacier 3000 ski domain and effectively marks the border between the Vaud and Wallis cantons in western Switzerland.

Skiers could glide over the top from one glacier to the other. But now a strip of rock between them has emerged, with just the last remaining bit of ice left.

“No-one has set foot here for over 2,000 years; that’s very moving,” said Glacier 3000 chief executive Bernhard Tschannen.

A picture taken on August 6, 2022 shows blankets covering snow from the last winter season to prevent it from melting next to Glacier 3000 ski lift at the melting Tsanfleuron Glacier above Les Diablerets, Switzerland. – Following several heatwaves blamed by scientists on climate change, Switzerland is seeing its alpine glaciers melting at an increasingly rapid rate. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

The Scex Rouge glacier is likely to turn into a lake within the next 10 to 15 years. It should be about 10 metres deep with a volume of 250,000 cubic metres (8.8 million cubic feet).

The ski resort is working out how to adapt to the new reality if people cannot ski between the two glaciers.

“We are planning to renew the facilities in this area in the coming years, and one idea would be to shift the route of the current chairlift to allow more direct access to the Tsanfleuron glacier,” said Tschannen.

Covers have been put on sections of the Tsanfleuron glacier by the pass to protect them from the Sun’s melting rays.

Glaciologist Mauro Fischer, a researcher at Bern University, said the loss of thickness of the glaciers in the region will be on average three times higher this year compared to the last 10 summers.

Bodies emerge from ice

The melting of the glaciers makes them more unstable, which makes them less viable for winter sports and hiking, but it also means that things buried in the ice for years — even decades — can re-emerge.

In the past two weeks, two human skeletons were found on glaciers in Wallis.

Work is underway to try to identify the remains. According to the Swiss news agency ATS, the Wallis police have a list of some 300 people who have gone missing since 1925.

In July 2017, the Tsanfleuron glacier turned up the bodies of a couple who disappeared in 1942.

The bones of three brothers who died in 1926 were found on the Aletsch glacier in June 2012.

And last week the wreckage of a plane that crashed in the Alps in 1968 was discovered on the Aletsch glacier.

The bodies of the three people on board were recovered at the time but the wreckage was not.

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