Almost all glaciers in the Alps could disappear by 2100: study

A study has found climate change may cause 90 percent of glaciers in the Alps to melt by the end of the century. It comes after a handful of European states agreed to better protect the Alps against climate change.

Climate change is causing the world's glaciers to shrink five times faster than they were in the 1960s, losing 369 billion tons of snow and ice each year, according to a study in the journal Nature.

Nature and Environment | 07.11.2018

Researchers used ground and satellite measurements to look at 19,000 glaciers, and found that those shrinking fastest are in central Europe, the Caucasus region, western Canada, the US Lower 48 states, New Zealand and near the tropics, with an average loss of more than 1% of their mass per year.

Read more: Landslides and less snow. Climate change is altering the Bavarian Alps

"In these regions, at the current glacier loss rate, the glaciers will not survive the century," said lead author Michael Zemp, director of the World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich.

Southwestern Asia is the only region of 19 where glaciers were not shrinking, which Zemp said was due to local climate conditions.

Ninety percent of Alpine glaciers at risk

Scientists found that under the conditions of a scenario called RCP 8.5 — essentially a business-as-usual approach where man-made emissions continue to rise throughout the century as the global population grows — the Alps would be almost ice-free in about eight decades.

"In this pessimistic case, the Alps in Europe will be mostly ice free by 2100, with only isolated ice patches remaining at high elevation, representing 5% or less of the present-day ice volume," said Matthias Huss, a researcher at the ETH Zurich university and study co-author.

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Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

Germany's roof

A golden cross sits on top of Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze, located in the Ammergauer Alps. This part of the Alps, and the mountain itself, are a big draw for visitors eager to ski, hike, climb or just cruise to the top in a cable car to have some food or a beer. But the mountains are feeling the impact of a warming world — at an alarming rate.

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

Rapid warming

It's September and unusually warm. So warm that some people wear shorts and T-shirts as they stop off to eat and explore the glacier plateau before heading for the summit. Thirty years ago, it would have been much colder here. Since 1985, there's been a warming of around 1 degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit). In the Alps, temperatures are rising twice as fast as the global average.

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

Melting glaciers

Increased temperatures mean receding glaciers. Michael Krautblatter, pictured at the Schneefernerhaus environmental research station with the remnants of one of the Zugspitze's glaciers behind him, says "it's just a matter of time before they disappear." The professor of landslide research at Munich's Technical University (TUM) has been studying the mountain's ice for 10 years.

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

The science bit

Krautblatter and his team use specialized equipment to measure the Zugspitze's ice and permafrost — a layer of permanently frozen sediment, rock or soil. They place electrodes inside the rocks to measure electrical conductivity. If it's no longer frozen, conductivity is good. The work sometimes involves the researchers scaling the mountain face. The permafrost is disappearing too, they say.

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

Losing stability

That's bad news, largely because permafrost helps to stabilize the mountain rock. Over the past year, around a thousand rockfalls have been reported, says Krautblatter. Some popular hiking routes have already been closed and a dozen or so Alpine huts are subsiding. It could also be a problem for cable cars, because they are anchored in the rocks on the mountainside.

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

A family tradition

Scientists aren't the only ones who've witnessed the changes. Toni Zwinger is 33 years old and works at the inn run by his family near the summit. He grew up on the mountain and as a child the glaciers were his playground. He says the glacier is much smaller, the winters are warmer and he hears the rocks shifting outside in the evening when the tourists have gone and the mountain is quiet.

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

Münchner Haus

The Münchner Haus opened in 1897 and the Zwinger family has been running it since 1925 — back when it could only be reached by climbers. It's a traditional Alpine hut in which people can stay overnight. Those people can now easily ascend the mountain by train and cable car. That's increased the number of visitors to the peak exponentially.

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

Uncertain future

Even if, as set out in the Paris Agreement, the world manages to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, that would represent warming of around 4 degrees in the Alps. That means less snow, more rain, changing vegetation and no glaciers. It could also mean that visitors will no longer be able to enjoy a beer or hot chocolate at the century-old Münchner Haus.

Under a more hopeful situation where greenhouse gas emissions peak within a few years and rapidly recede towards the century's end — a scenario climatologists call RCP 2.6 — a third of Alpine glacier mass would survive.

RCP  (Representative Concentration Pathway) 8.5 is the most pessimistic of four models used to estimate future global emissions by UN officials and others; RCP 2.6 is the most optimistic. 

There are more than 4,000 glaciers throughout the Alps, which provide seasonal water to millions and form some of Europe's most stunning landscapes.

Glaciers grow in winter and shrink in summer, but as the Earth has become warmer, the glaciers are growing less and shrinking more. Zemp said warmer summer temperatures were the main reason glaciers were shrinking faster.

Better protection for the Alps

The study comes within a week of a summit in Bavaria focusing on how to better protect the Alps from climate change.

Bavarian Premier Markus Söder and representatives from Italy's South Tyrol, Switzerland's St Gallen and Grisons cantons, Austria's Salzburg and Upper Austria agreed that to better protect the Alps from climate change, the regions bordering the mountain range should cut greenhouse gas emissions, use more renewable energy and move traffic to rail.

"The Alpine region is a highly sensitive ecosystem and at the same time home, economic and recreational space for millions of people," Söder said.

On Wednesday and Thursday an Alpine Conference was also held in the Austrian city of Innsbruck, at which the parties to the Alpine Convention adopted the "Climate-neutral Alps 2050" range of targets.

"The Alpine region is particularly affected by climate change. The Alpine countries therefore want to make a substantial contribution to climate protection," German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said.

The parties to the Alpine Convention — Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Switzerland, Slovenia and the European Union — said the alpine climate-neutral goal was to be achieved with measures in the areas of transport, tourism, energy production and agriculture.

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