The First Alpine Glaciers Are Growing Again

  • Date: 30/09/13
  • Fabienne Riklin, Schweiz am Sonntag

For the Swiss Alps 2013 was a good summer. Not since ten years ago have the glaciers lost as little mass as this year. And some seem to be gaining a little weight.

 

«It would appear that the Findel glacier is gaining mass», says Swiss glaciologist Matthias Huss. Foto: Keystone

The Findel glacier high above Zermatt presents itself proudly these days. The nearly eight-kilometre long white tongue shines brightly in the autumn sun. “It has been a long time since so little ice has melted. It even looks as if the glacier had gained a little weight, “says glaciologist Matthias Huss of the University of Freiburg. He attributes this positive development to the long and snowy winter. “And although July and August were very hot, the thick layer of snow protected the ice.”

In recent summers, the glaciers in Switzerland lost a meter in thickness on average. Particularly disastrous were the years 2011, 2006 and 2003, in which the loss was two to three meters for some glaciers. At that time there was little snow in winter and in spring, and it got warm very early.

The consequences were also felt by the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC). Lakes came into existence where glaciers paths used to be, and rock appeared where ice had been. “We had to adapt the approach routes to our huts,” says Ulrich Delang, head of the SAC huts. About 30 ascents to huts have been affected by glacier retreat.

To measure the volume changes of glaciers, researchers drilled rods into the ice. In spring and autumn they then measure how much of the rods are sticking out of the ice. In this way they can calculate the volume of the increase or the melting.

This week glaciologist Matthias Huss and his team completed the measurements on these glaciers: Findelgletscher, Pizolgletscher, St. Annafirn, Vadret dal Corvatsch, the Glacier du Tsanfleuron and the Glacier de la Plaine Morte. The data have not been fully evaluated yet, but it turns out that the melting has slowed compared to in previous years. For example, the Pizolgletscher has only lost about 50 centimetres in thickness. “In general the glaciers have lost less mass than in any of the last ten years,” says Huss.

This is also the result of measurements by the glacier researcher Andreas Bauder of the ETH Zurich. “There are signs of a positive balance, especially in the north of the canton Ticino and in the southern Valais,” says Bauder. He has studied the following glaciers: Silvrettagletscher, Rhone glacier, Giétro, Glacier de Corbassière, Allalingletscher and the Basodino.

But it is too early to speak of a relaxation of the situation, says Bauder. “There have always been years in which individual glaciers developed positively. It takes several favourable years in a row to stop the general trend of shrinkage.”

In addition: Over the last hundred years, the annual mean temperature in most areas of the Alps has warmed by about one degree. And even if this week the IPPCC reported that global temperatures have not risen for 15 years, this has no direct effect on the Swiss glaciers. “The reactions of large glaciers are delayed by up to 50 years,” says Bauder. And in Switzerland the last 20 years were the warmest since measurements began.

Nevertheless, the latest research shows: Glaciers can still grow back. “We have been doubting whether this is even possible at all. Now we know: It is possible,” says the glaciologist Bauder.

translation Philipp Mueller

Schweiz am Sonntag, 29 September 2013