(Victor Hugo, French writer)
I love glaciers. They are story-tellers, conserving the past and predicting the future through their rhythms, which reflect the beat of their environments. The massive size of their bodies consumes long time-scales to built. Healthy, stationary glaciers indicate a stable outer world. The stories that the ice is telling us reveal that our planet is rapidly changing.
In 2018 I started to climb through the Alps and portrait its remaining glaciers. In the light of the climate catastrophe I perceive them as some rare animals that are at the brink of extinction. As an example, the tongue of the largest glacier in Austria (Pasterze glacier) is expected to disappear completely within the next 40 years1. And there is no hope that the ice could return in their habitat within the next 1000 years 2. About time to collect the portraits of these old creatures that were sentenced to death by mankind.
A quickly disappearing world
Not just the Alps are effected of course – glaciers all over the world are melting at an alarming rate and faster than previously predicted1. The worldwide observations collected by the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS), speak a clear language (see the graph below). The scientifically clear reason for this dramatic changes are the rising global temperatures due to the exponentially growing deposits of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
How the presence of ice and snow impacts climate
Apart from being important reservoirs that provide water and irrigation for billions of people worldwide, together with sea-ice, glaciers have an important cooling function for the planet. Any white or bright surface energetically acts as a mirror, reflecting most of the incoming radiation of the sun back into space (albedo-effect). Dark surfaces (like the ocean) do not reflect, but absorb most of the radiation. Anybody can feel this fact by the difference in perceived warmth wearing a white or black shirt in the shining sun. The absorbed energy is then re-emitted as mostly infrared radiation (heat) and gets partially trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, warming up the planet.
In case of melting ice, this is additionally problematic since it creates a vicious circle. Higher surface temperatures will melt more ice. Less ice reflects less total energy back into space. This warms up the planet even more, which means that again more ice is melted that reflects less energy and so forth. This effect is called the “ice-albedo feedback”, one of many positive feedback loops in the earths’ climate system. The ice-albedo feedback is the major reason why the poles and the glaciated/snow-covered high alpine regions are warming much more rapidly relative to the rest of the planet.
5000 Glaciers in 6 Countries
Although the total glacial ice volume in the Alps has decreased dramatically in the last decades, the range is still home to about 5000 glaciers. Besides the most famous ones, I am visiting the less known areas as well. My ongoing journey leads me through Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany and Slovenia. The latter two countries have only seven very small “glaciers” left. Most of them are already “dead-ice”, meaning they stopped flowing, so there is no additional ice created by compression of snow at higher elevations and they therefore melt in situ.
Pick a country (to be continued …):
1 ZAMG – Zentralanstalt für Meteorologie und Geodynamik, News, 31st Octover 2017
2 Solomon et al., Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 2009
3 Brysse et al, Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama?, Global Environmental Change, October 2012
4 The current State of Glaciers around the world, World Glacier Monitoring Service, https://wgms.ch/downloads/_FAQ_RefGlac_Regional_Cum_MB.svg, last access: 04.12.2018
5 The Arctic Ocean albedo: exploring a natural system that keeps the Earth cool. Enduring Ice Documentary. Last access: 24.01.2019