Swiss glaciologist bears witness to relentless Alpine glacier melt
After hiking for hours across the mountain and a vast expanse of white, Swiss glaciologist Matthias Huss crouches down near the middle of the massive glacier and checks the measurements.
Aletsch glacier alone holds about a fifth of the total ice volume found in all of Switzerland’s around 1,800 glaciers.
But over the past decade, the glacier consisting of some 80 square kilometers of ice and rock has seen 1.5 meters shaved off its thickness each year.
A cubic kilometer of ice has also melted away during the same time period.
“The change is happening really, really quickly,” Huss told AFP.
The 41-year-old heads Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland (GLAMOS), a scientific network documenting the shrinking of the Swiss glaciers in the face of a warming planet.
“The glaciers are truly a giant and visible thermometer,” he said, pointing out that it is “much more poignant to see a glacier shrinking in volume and thickness than to look at a graph showing temperatures rising.”
“Glaciers are beautiful,” he added, accounting for the often emotional response when people reflect on the shrinking and future disappearance of the ice formations.
GLAMOS scientists monitor around 20 Swiss glaciers each year and have noted that since 2010, the frequency of years with extreme ice loss has accelerated dramatically.
One such year was 2011, the next was 2015, and then 2017, 2018 and 2019 were each record breakers.
While last year was not a year of extremes, Swiss glaciers still shed 2 percent of their total volume, Huss said.
And this year, the negative trend will likely continue, despite heavy snow and a relatively cold winter, he added.
Global warming is going so fast that a number of smaller glaciers have already disappeared.
In September 2019, Huss participated in a symbolic funeral for the Pizol glacier in northeastern Switzerland, at an altitude of around 2,700 meters.
“Since then, we have stopped active monitoring of Pizol. It no longer makes any sense,” Huss said.
He plans to collect two final samples in a few weeks, but, he acknowledged, “after that it will really be over”.
And Pizol will surely not be the last glacier to melt away, Huss said.
“Over the next 10-20 years, there will certainly be other well-known glaciers that will disappear.”
Global warming caused by human activity, mostly the burning of fossil fuels, has pushed up Earth’s average surface temperature 1.1 degrees Celsius compared to mid-19th century levels.
Most of that increase has occurred in the last 50 years.