Adapting to changing glaciers in the Swiss Alps

Hiking along the narrow path above the Gorner glacier, outside the high Alpine town of Zermatt, I feel, as Mark Twain described, “tolerably insignificant.” A thousand metres below me, the 12.9km glacier of primeval beauty flows from the Monte Rosa massif past the foot of the Breithorn and Dufourspitze towards the Matterhorn.

“This is a mind-blowing, awesome experience. The visual impact of something so powerful can’t be described,” Yoghsh Katechia, an oncoming tourist from Connecticut says. “But then you step back and say, my god, soon this isn’t going to be here any more. The power of climate change here is devastatingly real.”

03/07/2022. The Gorner Glacier view from hike from Rotenboden towards Monte Rosa hut.. The 12.9km long Gorner Glaciier can be seen from Gornregrad mountain station. It flows from the Monte Rosa massif past the foot of the Breithorn and Dufourspitze towards the Matterhorn.

Katechia’s thoughts mirror the findings of glaciologists. The Gorner glacier has been retreating since the end of the 19th century, more dramatically in recent years. “Almost all of the Alps 1,800 glaciers could disappear by 2100,” says Matthias Huss, a glaciologist and head of Glacier Monitoring Switzerland (GLAMOS) at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich.

The only scalable solution to rapid glacial loss is cutting greenhouse emissions

Up to 500 glaciers have disappeared already in the Alps, with over 10 per cent melting in the past five years. In

2019, Huss helped organise a “funeral” at the Pizol glacier, which he had been monitoring since 2006. It “died” as a result of climate change during a summer where glaciers lost about 800 million tonnes of snow and ice. “It’s difficult for people to visualise how climate change is manifesting, unless they are regularly at 2,700 metres.”

According to Huss, who’s name appears on 150 published papers, this year’s snow poor winter and early summer heatwaves put Swiss glaciers into a “highly unfavourable state”. Of the collapse of the Marmolada glacier in Italy, which killed at least 10 people, he says: “Investigations by those responsible on site will have to clarify the exact causes of the collapse. However, the exceptional situation this year with very little snow in winter and early, heavy ice melt has certainly played a role.” Although accelerated glacier melt is not occurring as a result of one hot summer.

“The only scalable solution to rapid glacial loss is cutting greenhouse emissions. But if we become a fossil-free society after 2050, we could still save glacier ice, thus mitigating the most severe impacts,” he adds.

I’m in Switzerland visiting glaciers and researching how stakeholders are adapting to climate change in glacial regions. Swiss glaciers, because they are highly monitored, are subjects of much scholarly and governmental research — with tangible local commitments to adaptation.

We are doing what we can, we just protect the grotto as long as possible for tourists to enjoy it

My first stop is the mighty Aletsch glacier. Weighing 10 billion tonnes, with a depth of 800 metres at its deepest point, it covers an area of 79 sq kilometres. Since 1870, it has lost 3.2km in length, losing 1.3km in length between 1980 and 2016, according to the World Glacier Monitoring Service. If we were to drink it, It would provide one glass of water for everyone on earth for 3.5 years.

01/07/2022 The view before stepping onto the Aletsch glacier. during a glacier trek across the glacier.

Declared a Unesco world heritage site in 2001, it is one of the biggest nature attractions in Switzerland, with more than 700,000 visitors alone to the Jungfraujoch viewing point. “We want people to see the glacier, so they can build a relationship with it,” says Maurus Bamert,, head of the Pro Natura Centre.

“We can’t stop the juggernaut of climate change, ” he says, but education is key to crating awareness of the precious glacier. ” The nature conservation centre, which is housed in Villa Cassel — built by English banker Sir Ernest Cassel in the early 20th century — sits 2,100 metres above sea level in car-free Riederalp.

29/07/2022. Maurus Bamert (Head of the Pro Natura Centre Aletsch) discussing sustainability and climate awareness at the Pro Natura Centre in Riederalp.

“We offer environmental education, glacier tours, practical nature conservation to support endangered species and political nature conservation, while communicating with people the importance of nature,” he explains.

Bamert’s views are echoed by geographer Jessica Oehler at the World Nature Forum in Naters, where an interactive exhibition allows visitors to experience how climate change is impacting the Aletsch region. “We’re trying to find a balance between protection, sustainability and the local economy — all equally important,” he adds.

30/06/2022 Geographer Jessica Oehler at the World Nature Forum. in Naters explain how biodivresity and flaura and fauna is changing as a result of glacier melt.

The exhibition details glacier loss, geology and local history with a spectacular combination of technology and infographics. Oehler explains how the Unesco region has a responsibility to nature. “The Unesco area provides a diversity of ecosystems, which are changing as a result of climate change, sometimes for the better too. We are seeing new plant and bird species here each year.”

A delicate dance between economics and protecting the environment is involved. Alpine towns I visited including Zermatt, Riederalp and Saas Fee are car free. Lifts to mountain areas are carbon neutral, Swiss rail SBB has an expectedly efficient transport network to mountain resorts. A cable station at Moosfluh close to the Aletsch glacier can shift by 11 metres horizontally and subside by 9 metres to accommodate unstable terrain.

“I see the glacier change each year,” my mountain guide from the Volken Sport in Fiesch says as we trek across the great Aletsch. “The ladder at the Konkordia hut, which stands at the glacier’s deepest point — 800m (the same height at Burj Khalifa) — is lowered annually to accommodate the shrinking glacier.” I take lots of photographs, knowing soon these will be historic documents, while he surveys the lifeless rock surrounding the ice, where glacier once was. “We had 30 per cent less snow this winter. Glaciers need snow to grow. But you never know what will happen. We simply adapt.”

01/07/2022 trekking across the great Aletsch glacier with Volken sport in Fiesch, Switzerland. Treks of varying sizes take place between June and October each year and are hugely popular with tourists. The force from the ice, gives it these mountainous formations.

At the Rhone Glacier, which I reach by driving along the stunning hairpin Furka pass in an electric car, tarpaulins cover a 150-year-old ice grotto to keep it cool. They are large sheets of geotextiles, which slow down the melting process. “We are doing what we can, we just protect the grotto as long as possible for tourists to enjoy it,” a grotto cashier informs me. A lake close to the grotto has formed since 2010, where the tongue of the glacier was. A group of motorcyclists from Germany are stunned. “I can’t believe how quickly it has melted,” one says.

30/07/2022 The Rhone Glacier ice grotto has been in operation since the 1870s. It is covered in tarpaulins to slow down glacier melt. Here a lake, which has formed from glacier melt since 2010.

Tarpaulins are also used in ski areas. I ski at the Matterhorn Glacier- which offers year round skiing. The Theodul glacier, which begins where the ski piste ends, looks more rocky than my last visit here, three years ago. Summer skiers, many from Olympic teams around the world, know the pleasure of skiing in July could be finite. Although geotextiles have proven to be locally effective at slowing glacier melt, in grottos or small sections of ice, research from Huss suggests it would cost €1 billion to cover Swiss glaciers; it would be “expensive, inequitable and unscalable”.

30/07/2022 The Rhone Glacier ice grotto has been in operation since the 1870s. It is covered in tarpaulins to slow down glacier melt.

It’s helpful to compare Switzerland’s glaciers to the Cliffs of Moher. These are 214 metres at their highest point, so if they lost around three metres annually, we could be walking into the sea by 2100, around the same time we could swim in the cold, muddy lakes of Aletsch. Perhaps if we were to bear witness to such an obvious physical manifestation of a warming planet, we might amend our often used attitude of “whataboutery”.

Surveys from the Swiss National Centre for Climate Services (NCCS), show Swiss temperatures have risen by 2 degrees since 1864 compared to .85 degrees elsewhere. “Only an effective lowering of emissions can limit the future temperature change. However, adaptation to the impacts of climate change would be required even in this case,” according to the organisation, which is currently planning a cross-sectoral approach for “actionable climate services” for the environment, economy and society.

The pragmatic Swiss are blessed with glacial beauty, but are victims of climate crimes against it. “There’s a misconception that what we’re doing here will stop glacier melt, but nothing we do here, is stopping climate change, but with consistent and global climate protection, some of the glaciers can actually still be saved. We are talking about around one third in the Alps if the Paris climate agreement is implemented. That’s not much, but it would cushion the worst effects.” Huss says.

Switzerland is doing everything it can, but it does not hold a magic key. Only a global decarbonising effort can do that.

Link to article in The Irish Times The Irish Times