Europe's heat wave: Climate change is killing the Alpine glaciers

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Heat waves and meltdowns: Why Europe’s glaciers are dying and bringing tragedy with them

It was a day that hammered home the kind of danger and destruction climate change is capable of: On July 3, after a June that saw temperature records shattered across Europe, a piece of a glacier at Marmolada, the highest peak in the Italian Dolomites, collapsed, triggering an avalanche that killed 11 people.

Glaciers are in retreat all over the world, and the picturesque tourist destinations of the Alps are no exception. But Europe is facing more intense climate change-induced heat waves than other warming parts of the world, and the glaciers in Italy, Switzerland, Austria and elsewhere in Europe are melting faster than ever.

“Obviously, heat waves are not any good for glaciers,” said Daniel Farinotti, a professor of glaciology at ETH Zurich. “You can get really big losses in a very short amount of time.”

Glaciers have long provided one of the clearest indicators of a warming climate, with signs of retreat dating back a century in some places. Scientists have been able to track changes using old photographs for comparison with satellites and other more modern methods used today.

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Heat wave hot spot

The heat waves pounding Europe this summer and helping to destabilize and melt the glaciers are accelerating in frequency three to four times more rapidly than in other parts of the northern hemisphere. A study published this month showed that the heat waves owe their frequency and strength to atmospheric changes to jet streams over the last several decades.

The study’s authors, led by Efi Rousi of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, noted that current climate models underestimate the speed of European warming. “If models do not accurately represent the variability of the jet stream this could result in a significant underestimation of future heatwave trends over western Europe,” they wrote.

Farinotti said that in Switzerland, about half of glacial ice has been lost over the last 90 years. Guglielmina Diolaiuti, a glacier expert at the University of Milan, told Grid that in the Italian Alps, about one-third of all glaciers have disappeared since the 1960s. Much of this is recent, and accelerating — an inventory of all the glaciers of the Alps published in 2019 found a decrease in area of about 15 percent since 2003.

The rate of loss over the last 10 years or so is about 2 percent annually, but 2022 is destined to be a particularly bad year for melting ice, Farinotti said. With little snow this past winter and the continuing intense summer heat, the glaciers are not faring well.

“We are at the beginning of summer, and we see glaciers that have the shape and look that they will typically have [in] September,” he said.

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Farinotti told Grid that even if the world manages to meet its collective climate targets — fulfill the promises made under the Paris agreement and cut emissions toward zero by midcentury — glacial losses would total to about 60 percent by 2100. And if the world fails and instead continues to use fossil fuel largely unabated and emissions continuing to rise? According to Farinotti, “that would put us with a virtually ice-free landscape.”

What melts with the ice

Losing alpine glaciers will have meaningful and wide-ranging effects. There are dangers like those realized in the collapse at Marmolada, but there are also severe implications for tourism, hydropower and agriculture — among other things. Glaciers play a huge role in the skiing industry, with popular resorts such as Zermatt, near the iconic Matterhorn, relying on them for significant ski surfaces. The glaciers’ retreat could threaten the entire industry.

Diolaiuti and her colleagues showed in a 2018 study that in one Italian region, 20 percent of the water used for hydropower production came from the runoff from glaciers.

“We have a really big problem [with] agriculture” as well, she told Grid. An ongoing drought in Italy has led the government to declare a state of emergency in the northern region of the Po River valley. “Glaciers cannot solve this problem, but they can help,” she added.

Ice blankets

The glaciers’ rapid retreat has led to some innovative ideas on how they might be saved. One way is to protect them with a kind of blanket. Covering glaciers with a layer of white fleece reflects sunlight away from the ice, preventing evaporation and melt. A study, testing the idea in northern Italy, found that glacial melt was reduced by up to 69 percent compared with an uncovered glacier.

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Unfortunately, while it may be useful for ski resorts or other places trying to preserve small patches of glacier, this isn’t likely to be feasible at a large scale. Only 0.02 percent of Switzerland’s glacier area was covered, according to a 2021 study, and while the blankets may have prevented as much as 350,000 cubic meters of ice loss annually between 2005 and 2019, it came at a price of up to 8 Swiss francs per cubic meter (about the same in dollars). Switzerland alone loses around 1 billion cubic meters of glacial ice each year, and an annual price tag in the billions is probably out of the question. Aside from the price, the logistical difficulties of covering huge swathes of sometimes difficult-to-access terrain with fabric — or artificial snow, another idea that can work at the local scale — are likely too much to overcome.

“If we want to protect the glaciers for good in the long term, really, the only thing we can do is crank down carbon emissions,” Farinotti said.

The loss of glaciers highlights how the impacts of climate change are being felt everywhere, including some of the wealthiest countries in the world.

“Think of the typical Swiss postcard,” Farinotti said. “Probably some cows in the foreground, but certainly those mountains in the background. They’re white because there are glaciers, and that will change for sure. I don’t think that they will look ugly without glaciers, but [they] will definitely look different.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Dave Levitan
    Dave Levitan

    Climate Reporter

    Dave Levitan is a climate reporter for Grid where he focuses on interconnected stories about climate and science, and politics shaping action around both.