Switzerland’s glaciers have lost 6% of their total volume this year due to a dry winter and successive summer heat waves, breaking all melting records, according to a report released on Wednesday.
The study by the Cryospheric Commission (CC) of the Swiss Academy of Sciences shows the magnitude of the loss of glaciers, which will only get worse in the future.
“2022 is a disastrous year for Swiss glaciers: all melting records have been broken,” said the CC, according to which a 2% loss in 12 months was previously considered “extreme”.
Three cubic kilometers of ice melted, according to the report.
“It’s not possible to stop the melt in the short term,” said professor of glaciology Matthias Huss, head of Switzerland’s glacier monitor, which documents long-term changes in glaciers in the Alps and is coordinated by CC.
If carbon dioxide emissions are reduced and the climate is protected, “a third of the total volume in Switzerland could be saved at best,” he added.
On the other hand, if the situation continues, the country “will have lost everything by the end of the century”.
At the beginning of the year, snow cover in the Alps was exceptionally light, and then between March and May, a large volume of sand dust arrived from the Sahara Desert and settled on the surface.
Contaminated snow absorbs more heat and melts faster, depriving glaciers of their protective layer for the early European summer. The constant heat between May and early September blew away the glacial ice.
By mid-September, the ice sheet covering the passage between the Scex Rouge and Tsanfleuron glaciers had completely melted, exposing rocks that had been covered in ice since at least the Roman era.
In early July, the collapse of a section of the Marmolada glacier, the largest in the Italian Alps, left 11 dead and highlighted the gravity of the situation.
According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published in February, melting ice and snow is one of the ten threats of climate change.
Small glaciers affected
“The loss was especially dramatic for small glaciers,” according to CC. The Pizol, Vadret dal Corvatsch and Schwarzbachfirn glaciers “have practically disappeared, measurements have stopped,” the commission said.
In the Engadine and Valais regions, both in the south, “an ice sheet four to six meters thick at 3,000 meters above sea level has disappeared,” according to the report.
Significant losses were also recorded at the highest measurement points, such as the Jungfraujoch mountain, at almost 3,500 meters.
“Observations reveal that many glaciers are disintegrating and that chunks of rock are appearing in the thin ice between the glaciers. These processes are accelerating the decline,” the report says.
“The trend reveals the importance of glaciers for water and energy supply in hot and dry years,” the document adds, a relevant issue given that 60% of electricity in Switzerland comes from hydro sources.
Water from melting glaciers in July and August of this year would have provided enough water to completely fill all reservoirs in the Swiss Alps.
But Matthias Huss points out that if the country repeats the 2022 weather conditions in 50 years, “the impact will be much stronger, because in 50 years we expect almost all the glaciers to disappear and therefore not provide water for a hot summer.” .
Glacial melting also had unintended consequences. Hikers often come across gruesome finds, such as bodies that have been trapped in ice for decades or even centuries.
For archaeologists, it can be an incentive, because they suddenly have access to objects that are thousands of years old. Meanwhile, the melting of a glacier between Italy and Switzerland shifted the border, forcing long diplomatic negotiations.