After visiting the Gornergletscher in 1880, Mark Twain wrote that time spent near glaciers was a reminder of man’s “tolerable insignificance”. Yet high in the Swiss Alps, it is man’s intolerable significance that is fast becoming clear.
Soaring summer temperatures linked to climate change are having a profound effect on Switzerland’s 1,800 glaciers. Scientists estimate that 2% of the country’s glacial mass has melted this year alone — enough to fill a 25m swimming pool for every Swiss citizen.
“Glaciers make climate change visible,” said Jean-Baptiste Bosson, a glaciologist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The deterioration of Switzerland’s glaciers is being mirrored around the world as ice masses, even in the highest mountain ranges, shrink because of warmer temperatures. In Switzerland, four of the hottest years in history have been in the past five years.
A study by Bosson projected that more than half the world’s big glaciers would be lost by 2100. “We tried to answer the question: ‘how are they evolving and how will they evolve over the next century?’,” Bosson said. “The answer is that even in the most optimistic case, we are going to lose at least a third of their volume.”
Glaciers store 95% of the world’s fresh water. Even if the recent run of unusually hot summers were to end, the lost ice cannot be quickly replaced as the compaction process that forms glaciers takes decades.
Spate of deaths
Swiss scientists first began to notice that Alpine glaciers were shrinking about 40 years ago. Daniel Farinotti, a glaciologist at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich, noted that the period in the 1960s and 1970s was the last time that they advanced. Since 1980, however, Switzerland’s glaciers have lost 37% of their mass, with the pace accelerating in recent years.
“The truth is that even if we were to stabilise the climate . . . the glaciers would not freeze as they are now. They would continue retreating,” Farinotti said. “Present day glaciers are still sized for the climate of years ago. They take time to adjust.”
A spate of deaths in the Swiss Alps in recent years has been blamed by experts on the changing climactic conditions. In 2018, the last year for which full figures were released, 13 people died on glaciers alone as a result of far greater instability than usual. The number is more than double the recent average.
Switzerland’s lucrative winter sports sector is feeling the impact. As far back as 2005, locals in the Andermatt area, high in the Alps near the Gotthard pass, were having to cover the Gurschen glacier in blankets during the Summer to help maintain winter skiing conditions. In some resorts, melting ice deep under snow levels has wiped out some pistes altogether.
The hydroelectric sector that is the source of most of Switzerland’s electricity is also being affected by changes to watercourses.
Meltwater has led to fish stocks disappearing from some rivers, according to the Federal Office for the Environment. Scientists believe that temperatures and levels of bodies of water, such as Lake Geneva, could change in the coming years.
Switzerland is a signatory to the 2015 Paris climate accord that aims to cut carbon emissions radically, but concrete action to reduce greenhouse gases has been slow.
Voters are beginning to wake up to the threat. A petition for a referendum on climate change targets under Switzerland’s system of democracy gained more than 120,000 signatures. The initiative proposes binding legal targets for Switzerland to become fully carbon neutral by 2050. The proposed law change was formally sent this month to the government which has until next year to make a counterproposal.
“Glaciers are part of our identity,” said Céline Pfister, who is part of the campaign. “The glacier initiative is really a bottom-up movement,” she added.
While many Swiss are incredibly environmentally conscious – diligently sorting household recycling into neat bundles – the country has a highly developed outward-looking industrial sector which skews its overall carbon footprint. Switzerland’s economic security is perhaps the only thing its citizens place on a par with the beauty of their natural environment.
Pfister said her initiative would mean: “No fossil fuels. No oil. No coal. No gas.”
Yet, in the coming days, the country will fail to meet its existing emissions reduction targets. Switzerland has a 2020 goal, written into law, of a 20% reduction in emissions benchmarked to 1990. It has only reduced emissions by 12%.
Some Swiss communities, those most affected by glacial retreats, say they cannot wait for government action. In Pontresina, southeast Switzerland, the local authority is battling to save the Morteratsch glacier that sits high above their village.
One project, led by Johannes Oerlemans, a Utrecht University climatologist, involves laying a system of aerial pipes over the glacial channel, which mists the glacier with water in the hot summer months. The idea is that the water turns to snow, blanketing the glacier with an additional insulating layer.
“The system could potentially work anywhere,” said Oerlemans, “but the engineering challenges are huge. We want to cover an area of one-and-a-half square kilometres. That means 1,000 tonnes of snow a day.”
While the modelling indicates that the scheme should succeed, it will take decades before it actually reverses the fate of the glacier.
And it is, as Oerlemans laments, a palliative measure unless governments take real action to tackle climate change. “If the Paris agreement becomes reality, then there is a chance. But if nothing happens . . . this is a hopeless cause.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019