Swiss glaciers see worst melt on record in back-to-back heat waves

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Swiss glaciers have recorded their worst melt rate since records began more than a century ago, losing 6% of their remaining volume this year or nearly double the previous record of 2003, monitoring body GLAMOS said on Wednesday.

The melt was so extreme this year that bare rock that had remained buried for millennia re-emerged at one site while bodies and even a plane lost elsewhere in the Alps decades ago were recovered. Other small glaciers all but vanished.

“We knew with climate scenarios that this situation would come, at least somewhere in the future,” Matthias Huss, head of the Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network (GLAMOS) told Reuters. “And realizing that the future is already right here, right now, this was maybe the most surprising or shocking experience of this summer.”

Glaciologist Matthias Huss, front, takes note of the decrease of ice while other members of the GLAMOS team drill a new hole in the Gries glacier.

More than half of the glaciers in the Alps are in Switzerland where temperatures are rising by around 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 kilometers 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 melt by reflecting sunlight back to the atmosphere.

Huss walking on the Gries glacier.

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

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