Switzerland records worst melt rate of its glaciers

Swiss glaciers lost six percent of their volume this year, which far exceeded the record set in 2003, a new study says.

Swiss Alps
A view of the Swiss Alps in Davos. [File: Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

Switzerland has recorded the worst melt rate of its glaciers since monitoring began more than 100 years ago, losing six percent of their remaining volume this year or nearly double the previous record of 2003, according to the Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network (GLAMOS).

“2022 was a disastrous year for Swiss glaciers: all ice melt records were smashed by the great dearth of snow in winter and continuous heatwaves in summer,” the group, coordinated by the Cryospheric Commission, said in its report on Wednesday.

“Melt rates have far exceeded the previous records from the hot summer of 2003: the glaciers have lost around 3 cubic kilometres (0.72 cubic miles) of ice in 2022; more than 6 percent of the remaining volume.”

Matthias Huss, head of GLAMOS, told the Reuters news agency that based on climate change projections, “this situation would come, at least somewhere in the future”.

“And realising that the future is already right here, right now, this was maybe the most surprising or shocking experience of this summer,” he added.

The loss of ice melt was the most “dramatic” for small glaciers, the report said.

The Pizol, Vadret dal Corvatsch and Schwarzbachfirn glaciers “have practically disappeared, measurements were discontinued”, the commission said.

In the Engadine and southern Valais regions, both in the south, “a four to six-metre-thick (13-20 foot) layer of ice at 3,000 metres (9,843 feet) above sea level vanished”, said the report.

Significant losses were recorded even at the very highest measuring points, including the Jungfraujoch mountain, which peaks at nearly 3,500 metres (11,483 feet).

“Observations show that many glacier tongues are disintegrating and patches of rock are rising out of the thin ice in the middle of glaciers. These processes are further accelerating the decline,” the report added.

In a comment to Al Jazeera regarding how the rapid ice melt will affect Switzerland, Huss said it will have a “big impact” on the water runoff.

“Whereas at the moment the glaciers still release much water during drought periods as we had this summer, because they strongly melt in the heat, this function will be lost in the future when glaciers are much smaller,” he said.

Rising temperatures

More than half of the glaciers in the Alps are in Switzerland where temperatures are rising by about twice the global average.

Scientists across the Alps, including Huss, have been obliged to do emergency repair work at dozens of sites across the Alps as melting ice risked dislodging their measuring poles and wrecking their data.

The heavy losses this year, which amounted to about 3 cubic km (0.72 cubic miles) of ice, were the result of exceptionally low winter snowfall combined with back-to-back heatwaves.

Snowfall replenishes ice lost each summer and helps protect glaciers from further melting by reflecting sunlight back into the atmosphere.

If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the Alps’ glaciers are expected to lose more than 80 percent 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.

“Reversing the process is almost impossible. It would take a massive and persistent cooling of the atmosphere,” Huss told Al Jazeera.

“However, strong and global-scale reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would help to stabilize the climate in a few decades,” he added.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies