Switzerland’s glaciers are melting

The glaciers in the Swiss Alps are rapidly melting due to increased warming of the climate. Because of this melting, an estimated 80 percent of Switzerland’s annual water supply will be “missing” by 2100, as glaciers in the Alps retreat under rising temperatures. A recent study by Swiss and Italian researchers addresses this anticipated loss by exploring whether dams could replicate the hydrological role of glaciers. Like glaciers, the dams would contain and store meltwaters at high elevations in the valleys where the glaciers once resided.

Between 1980-2009, glaciers supplied continental Europe with approximately 1,400 trillion gallons (5.28 km3) of freshwater per year — about 1 percent of the total volume consumed by the United States each year. The majority (75 percent) of the melt occurs at the height of summer, from July through September. The researchers concluded that while their proposed strategy of building dams to replace glaciers could preserve sufficient volumes to meet Europe’s water demands through 2100, the supply scheme is unavoidably “non-renewable.” The source glaciers’ volumes are finite, as is the quantity of water that could be dammed. Accordingly, without an additional strategy for replenishing the stores (i.e. pumping in Austria) in the high reaches of the Alps, the supply would eventually run out.

As many modelers do, the researchers examined the impacts of a range of climate change scenarios on the Alps’ glaciers. They projected the probable volumes of meltwater, and health of glaciers in response to optimistic, realistic, and pessimistic concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG). They found that runoff from the European Alps’ 3,800 glaciers — which cover an area half the size of Glacier National Park — will increase over the next 23 years. However, the study finds that the summer meltwater contributions could decline by 15 percent mid-century. From 2070 to the end of the century, they project that the volume will decline by 29 percent in the best case scenario, but potentially up to 55 percent.

High altitude mountain glaciers, such as in the European Alps, are irrefutably disappearing at an alarming rate. Research led by Alex Gardner of Clark University found that between 2003-2009 approximately 259 gigatons of glacier ice was lost per year (excluding Greenland and Antarctic). That gargantuan loss in difficult to comprehend. But essentially it means that each and every year a quantity of ice greater than the total combined mass of 700,000 Empire States Buildings melts. Much of it ends up in the sea.

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