“It’s really obvious that this is extreme” – Glaciers are disappearing at record speed due to heat waves

From the way 45-year-old Swiss glaciologist Andreas Linsbauer jumps over icy crevasses, you would never guess that he was carrying 10kg of steel gear needed to map the retreat of Swiss glaciers.

He usually sets off on this trail on the mighty Morteratsch Glacier at the end of September, the end of the summer melting season
the Alps.

But this year’s exceptionally high rate of ice loss has prompted him to visit this 15-square-kilometer amphitheater of ice two months early for emergency maintenance work.

The gauge rods he uses to track changes in the depth of the pack are in danger of becoming detached entirely as the ice melts away and he has to drill new holes.

Alpine glaciers are on track for their highest mass loss in at least 60 years on record, data show.

Using the difference between how much snow fell in winter and how much ice melted in summer, scientists can measure how much a glacier has shrunk in a given year.

“It’s really obvious that this is an extreme season”

Since last winter, which brought relatively little snow, the Alps have weathered two major heatwaves in early summer – including one in July with temperatures reaching 30C in the Swiss mountain village of Zermatt.

During this heat wave, the height at which water froze was measured at a record 5,184 meters – at a height above Mont Blanc – compared to normal summer levels of between 3,000 and 3,500 metres.

“It’s really obvious that this is an extreme time of year,” Mr. Linsbauer said, drowning out the roar of meltwater as he checked the height of a pole sticking out of the ice.

Most of the world’s mountain glaciers – remnants of the last Ice Age – are retreating due to climate change.

But those in the European Alps are particularly at risk because they are smaller and have relatively little ice coverage.

Meanwhile, temperatures in the Alps are warming at about 0.3°C per decade – about twice the global average.

If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, Alpine glaciers are projected to lose more than 80 percent of their current mass by 2100.

Many will disappear no matter what emissions action is taken now, thanks to global warming caused by past emissions, according to a 2019 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Morteratsch has already changed a lot from the glacier depicted on the tourist maps of the region.

The long tongue that once reached deep into the valley below has shrunk nearly 3 km, while the depth of the snow and ice cover has thinned by up to 200 meters.

A parallel glacier, Pers, flowed into it until 2017, but has now receded enough to leave an expanding strip of sand between them.

The dire situation this year raises concerns that Alpine glaciers may disappear sooner than expected. That could happen with more years like 2022, said Matthias Huss, who heads Glacier Monitoring Switzerland.

“We are now seeing model results that are expected a few decades into the future,” Huss said. “I didn’t expect to see such an extreme year so early in the century.”

Glaciologists in Austria, France and Italy have confirmed that glaciers there were on the way to record losses.

In Austria, “the glaciers are snow-free up to the peaks,” says Andrea Fischer, a glaciologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

Seasonal snowfall, aside from replenishing ice lost in summer, protects glaciers from further melting by forming a white blanket that reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere better than darker ice – polluted by dust or pollution – does can.

But on the Grand Etret glacier in northwestern Italy, only 1.3 meters of snow had accumulated last winter – two meters less than the annual average for the 20 years up to 2020.

This year’s alpine ice losses, recorded ahead of August, the biggest month of melting, came as a surprise to scientists, as many of the glaciers had already lost their lower-lying snouts.

Because they’d retreated to the mountain, where temperatures are cooler, scientists thought they should have been better protected.

“You can easily imagine that the end results after the summer will be a widespread loss of glacier cover in the Italian Alps,” said Marco Giardino, vice-president of the Italian Glaciological Committee.

The data shows that Morteratsch is now losing about 5cm a day and is already in worse shape than it would normally be at the end of an average summer, according to data from Glamos and the Universite libre de Bruxelles.

The nearby Silvretta Glacier has lost about a meter more than it did at the same spot in 1947 — the worst year on its database, which dates back to 1915.

Glaciers in the Himalayas are also on track for a record year of ice loss, scientists said.

For example, by the time the summer monsoon season set in in the Kashmir region, many glaciers had already shrunk drastically, with their snow lines starting high up on the mountain, following a March-May heatwave marked by temperatures exceeding 48°C in northern India.

An expedition in early June in India’s Himachal Pradesh found that the Chhota Shigri glacier had lost much of its snow cover.

“Clearly, the highest temperature in over a century from March to May had its impact,” said Indian Institute of Technology Indore glaciologist Mohd Farooq Azam.

The loss of the glaciers “means the loss of our national heritage, our identity…it’s sad”

Even now, receding glaciers are endangering lives and livelihoods.

Earlier this month, eleven people died when a glacier collapsed on the Marmolada in Italy.

Days later, a collapsing glacier in the Tian Shan Mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan triggered a massive avalanche that hurled ice and rock at passing tourists.

Above the Swiss village of Saas Fee, a path to a mountain hut once led through a summer snowfield on the Chessjen Glacier.

“Now it’s too dangerous,” says hut warden Dario Andenmatten, looking at the barren landscape dotted with glacial lakes, because of the risk of falling rocks, which were once held together by frozen ice.

Nearby, the rumble of rocks falling from the mountain could be heard.

Swiss citizens fear that glacier losses will hurt their economy. Some Alpine ski resorts that rely on these glaciers now cover them with white sheets to reflect sunlight and reduce melting.

Swiss glaciers figure in many of the country’s fairy tales, and the Aletsch Glacier is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The loss of glaciers “means the loss of our national heritage, our identity,” said hiker Bernardin Chavaillaz. “It is sad.”

https://www.independent.ie/world-news/its-really-obvious-this-is-extreme-glaciers-vanish-at-record-rates-due-to-heatwaves-41870677.html “It’s really obvious that this is extreme” – Glaciers are disappearing at record speed due to heat waves

Fry Electronics Team

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