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“The summer of 2022 was indeed catastrophic for glaciers”

In Switzerland, glacier melt has partially uncovered a pass that had been covered with ice for at least 2000 years.

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“The summer of 2022 was indeed catastrophic for glaciers”

In Switzerland, glacier melt has partially uncovered a pass that had been covered with ice for at least 2000 years. An ice thickness of 15 meters was measured over the Zanfleuron Pass at an altitude of around 2800 meters in 2012, reported the operator of the glacier ski area there, Glacier 3000. "The summer of 2022, which followed a winter with little precipitation, was indeed catastrophic for the glaciers". , it was said. The area is located near Les Diablerets between the cantons of Vaud and Valais.

The two glaciers Scex Rouge and Zanfleuron (also Tsanfleuron) lost three times as much in thickness this year as the average of the past ten summers, the operating company said. The pass will likely be completely ice-free by the end of September.

According to the glaciologist Mauro Fischer from the University of Bern, it is possible that the glacier has been under ice for more than 2000 years, as the operating company reports. She assumes that in the next ten to 15 years a lake ten meters deep will form instead of the Scex glacier.

The German glaciers, which are already dying anyway, are currently suffering from an extreme meltdown. "2022 will go down as a record year, that's for sure," emphasizes glaciologist Olaf Eisen from the Alfred Wegener Institute, the Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research. "The only question is: How much worse will it be than in the previous record year 2003?"

There are still five glaciers in Germany, they are all in Bavaria. These are the northern and southern Schneeferner and the Höllentalferner, all three of which are on the Zugspitze massif. There is also the blue ice and the Watzmann glacier in the Berchtesgaden Alps. Last year, a panel of experts reduced its forecast of how much time left for the glaciers from 30 to around ten years – but now it could be even faster.

The southern Schneeferner will be the first to believe it. "He's extremely melted down and shriveled up. It could even be that by the end of the year it will already be over, there is almost nothing left," says Christoph Mayer from the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. Wilfried Hagg from Munich University of Applied Sciences also sums up after his visit to the area at the beginning of August: "It's really a very poor rest. If there are still two months of high temperatures, I'm not sure whether it will survive this year."

According to Mayer's measurements, the melt throughout the Alps this year is probably around 50 percent stronger than in an average year. The experts see three reasons for the situation in the Alps: On the one hand, it snowed little in most regions last winter; Bavaria is an exception with only a small minus.

On the other hand, this summer is very sunny and hot - and the typical cold fronts are missing. "So far we haven't had a single real cold snap with precipitation or snowfall at high altitudes, which usually slows down the glacier melt for a few days up to a week once or twice a summer," explains Mayer.

But the main factor, as all three glaciologists agree, is something else: the Sahara dust, which was deposited on the glaciers in a reddish-brown color, especially when it appeared in March. "As a result, the snow melts away much faster," explains Mayer.

The reason: when solar radiation hits a bright snow surface, 90 percent is reflected. However, the dust is darker and thus absorbs much more energy, which it then gives off as heat to the snow. In addition, the dust also heats up to higher temperatures than snow and sticks so firmly to the moist snow that the wind cannot carry it away either.

Hagg was able to see what that means with his own eyes recently at the southern Schneeferner. "The protective snow cover on the Zugspitze was gone a month earlier. The glacier has been melting since mid-June instead of mid/late July,” he reports on his excursion. Six weeks earlier means around half the additional time that the glacier is exposed to the sun without protection.

"A summer like this, which is exceptional throughout the Alps, has certainly not happened since the 1960s," emphasizes Hagg. "If more such years occur, the lifespan of the glacier will be shortened even more than we predicted because we did not take such extreme years into account when making the forecast."

"What we see with the Bavarian glaciers, we also see in Austria, in Switzerland, France, Italy," sums up Eisen. Everywhere the melt has progressed six to eight weeks. "That means we now have a state that normally occurs at the end of summer just before the first snowfall."

According to Eisen, it is even to be feared that the so-called equilibrium line will rise this year from mostly around 3,200 meters to an unprecedented 3,500 to 3,800 meters.

The equilibrium line divides the glaciers into a zone in which more snow is recorded than melt - the so-called nutrient area - and the zone below, in which there is more melt than snow - the so-called nutrient area. If this line actually slides up to such an extent, the snow from last winter will only survive this summer on the very highest mountains in the Alps.

"This means that the glaciers will lose a great deal of mass this year," emphasizes Eisen. "If this continues in the next few years, which we assume based on climate change forecasts, it means that the glaciers below 3500 meters will disappear."

What may only cause non-climbers to shrug their shoulders has enormous consequences for the inhabitants of the Alps. Just one example: the glaciers are currently bringing the snow from the winter into the summer as water. If they stop doing this one day soon, this can result in little water being available in the valleys during hot, dry summers.

"Aha! Ten minutes of everyday knowledge" is WELT's knowledge podcast. Every Tuesday and Thursday we answer everyday questions from the field of science. Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Deezer, Amazon Music, among others, or directly via RSS feed.

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