Research highlights extent of Alpine glacier loss

The Alps’ glaciers are on track for their highest mass losses in at least 60 years of record keeping, according to new data.

By looking at the difference in how much snow fell in winter, and how much ice melts in the summer, scientists can measure how much a glacier has shrunk in any given year.

Since last winter, which brought relatively little snowfall, the Alps have sweltered through two big early summer heatwaves – including one in July marked by temperatures near 30 Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) in the Swiss mountain village of Zermatt.

During this heatwave, the elevation at which water froze was measured at a record high of 5,184 meters (17,000 feet) – at an altitude higher than Mont Blanc’s — compared with the normal summer level of between 3,000-3,500 meters (9,800-11,500 feet).

The European Alps are especially vulnerable compared to other mountain ranges because they are smaller with relatively little ice cover. Meanwhile, temperatures in the Alps are warming at around 0.3C per decade — around twice as fast as the global average.

If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the Alps glaciers are expected to lose more than 80% of their current mass by 2100. Many will disappear regardless of whatever emissions action is taken now, thanks to global warming baked in by past emissions, according to a 2019 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This year’s Alpine ice losses, registered even before the biggest melt month of August, have surprised scientists to some extent, as many of the glaciers had already lost their lower-lying snouts. Because they had retreated up the mountain, where temperatures are cooler, scientists thought they should have been better protected.

Swiss residents worry that the glacier losses will hurt their economy. Some area ski resorts of the Alps, which rely on these glaciers, now cover them with white sheets to reflect sunlight and reduce melting.