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Ice Melt in Alps in Europe: Three impacts

  Rashmi Ramesh

The climate change causing heatwaves and wildfire saw Alps glacier melting at a faster pace

The recent heatwave in Europe has resulted in the Alps glaciers melting at an unprecedented rate, since monitoring began 60 years ago. Rapid melting is seen in the Alps in Switzerland, Italy and Austria. Due to unusual heat in the Alps, the freezing level or the zero-degree isotherm was established at an altitude 5,184 metres in Switzerland, against the normal level at 3,000-3500 metres in summer. The Alps are increasingly vulnerable due to climate change combined with their smaller size and thinness.

Global warming or the long-term heating of the earth’s surface has both natural and anthropogenic causes. However, the latter has expedited the process, with the planet’s average temperature now increased by 1.1 degree Celsius.

The previous winter witnessed below average snowfall, which now combined with the early heatwaves in June and July exposed the glaciers to direct sunlight much before the end of summer this year. Andrea Fischer, a veteran glaciologist studying the Alps, and the vice director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences remarked that “...this year is outrageous compared to the average of the past 6000 years...” could not have imagined a more dramatic melt as this summer. The melt has occurred in the early months of summer and the glaciologists express their concern over the rate of melt in the forthcoming two summer months.

The 2019 IPCC report said that with the increasing greenhouse gas emissions, the Alpine glaciers are expected to lose more than 80 per cent of their current mass by 2100. The glacier retreat is bound to happen despite any climate action to limit the warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius.

First, the possibility of disasters. Increasing temperatures are turning glaciers into lakes and raising the possibilities of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF). In 2018, Lenk, a municipality in Bern, Switzerland was flooded as the Faverges Lake burst open, forcing the authorities to swiftly evacuate people. GLOF can become more common as temperatures are on the rise. Thawing permafrost has increased the cases of rock sliding and landslides. In early July, the collapse of a glacier on the Mount Marmolada in the Italian Alps, created an avalanche that killed 11 hikers. Italian authorities have confirmed that the incident is a climate change-driven disaster. Increased chances of disasters and reduced snow cover in the early months of summer is now having a negative impact on the tourism sector, particularly on the famous Alpine hiking routes.

Second, the impact on science. Diminishing alpine glaciers have uncovered human remains, a mummy and remnants of a wreckage. Human skeletal remains were found on the Chessjen glacier and Stockji glacier in the Swiss alps. On 4 August, debris from a plane crash was found on the Aletsch glacier, and an investigation has revealed that the plane crashed on the glacier on 30 June 1968. An approximately 500-year-old mummy of a chamois, a goat-antelope is one of the intriguing uncovering on the melting Austrian Alps. Albert Zink, the head of the Institute for Mummy Studies at the Eurac Research in Italy said that “with the melting of the glaciers, there should be more of these findings, maybe also other humans showing up in the ice.” While the findings have a positive impact on science and discoveries, the loss of glaciers and the fast rate of melting is resulting in loss of precious data. The cryosphere contains frozen vegetation from the past that can be carbon-dated. Estimation of the age of the materials will also help in knowing more about the ice, its formation and paleo- climate. Rapid loss of ice can mean loss of data required for scientific studies.

Third, the changing borders. Climate change has a long-known connection to geopolitics. The realist notion of static geography is challenged by climate change that has the ability to change borders. The recent glacier retreat in the Alps has shifted the border between Italy and Switzerland. In recent years, the flow of the water sourced from the melting Theodul Glacier has significantly modified the border. The Rifugio Guide del Cervino, an Alpine refuge for visitors and hikers built originally in Italy at an altitude of 3480 metres has two-thirds of its property on Switzerland’s territory, prompting the two countries to intensify their diplomatic efforts to demarcate the international border.

About the author
Rashmi Ramesh is a doctoral student at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS.

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