Swiss Alps and Climate Change
While we have been hearing about global warming ever since I could remember, very people have actually seen first hand evidence of the enormous changes our earth is facing. Inhabitants of the alps however, can vividly recall how different the landscape looked a mere 50 years ago, and shudder to think at what it will look like in another 50 years. I stood in a spot, looking at one of Europe’s largest glacier’s and suppliers of fresh water.
With Switzerland making up only 0.4% of Europe’s land mass, it bring in 6% of the total potable water. Aletsch Glacier which is 900m thick, 23km long, and has retreated over 3km since 1870. Like many glaciers, the Jungfrau-Aletsch is a receding glacier, meaning that it is melting at a faster rate than it has a chance to replenish. While this is fairly natural, the acceleration in the recent decades has caused scientist to raise the alarm. They estimate that by 2100 the glacier may lose as much as 90% of its ice volume. Currently its shrinking by 50m in length each year, and retreating at the edges. The temperatures are predicted to rise twice as much in the Alps as the global average. Studying past ice ages and the carbon deposits in the glaciers shows, that there is a very significant relationship between greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and glaciers.
The Earth’s Natural Ice Age Cycles
The earth does cycle through ice ages, and it is currently due for another one. Typically intervals between ice ages last 10,000 to 12,000 years, with us currently being around 12,000 into this cycle. While a natural cooling cycle is expected, humans interruption with fossil fuels, animal agriculture and enormous green house gas emissions are tampering with the planets balance.
Human activities have not only emitted carbon dioxide and methane, which have high global warming potentials, burning fossil fuels also emits black carbon. This tiny part of the air pollution can absorb a million times more solar energy than co2. Considering methane absorbs 28-36x more and nitrous oxide has 265-289x. When black carbon retuns back to the earth through rain or snow fall, it darkens the ice. This darkening is no only an ugly scar of the beautiful country side, but it also reduces the albedo. Albedo is the reflecting power of the surface, meaning the lower the albedo is, the more light it absorbs. The more light it absorbs, the faster the ice melts.
The rapid acceleration of the melting ice has caused Switzerland to draw attention to this beautiful UNESCO world heritage sight, and have recently opened up an exhibition dedicated to opening people’s eyes about the value of this enormous frozen river. It is an absolutely stunning view, and I encourage anyone to peruse some of the images taken in the EarthPrints series here.
Going to See The Jungfrau-Aletsch Glacier
When I went to spend a weekend with my family in the Valais region, I expected metres of snow, skiing and ice. The typical image for a January holiday at 2000m. Instead, we were met with thin layers of snow, trees standing dark and ominous, exposed from their usual winter blankets. The giant structures created to secure villages and skiers from avalanches completely bare, and any snow storm quickly becoming a slushy mush.
For those who think climate change is not real, have not being paying attention. Because these usually impassable Alpine villages were just short of growing flowers in what is supposed to be the coldest month of the year. The walk I did to get to the glacier, and the view itself stunned me. The glacier might not be visible from the location I am standing in a few decades. We are potentially the last generation to witness the enormous beauty.
What if the Glacier Melts Completely
But what will it mean if the glacier melts? Currently, the quickly accelerating trickle from the glacier (more like raging white water rapid) supplies water to irrigation and hydroelectric power.
It also feeds several rivers such as the Rhine, flowing through six countries and feeds into the North Sea and The Rhone passing through lake Geneva (hello home!) and continuing to the Mediterranean sea. While this would mean rising sea levels for the duration of the accelerated melt, if the entire glacier disappears and fails to replenish, the entire region’s landscapes would be changed.
From studying the areas around the glacier, scientists have been able to identify how greatly the ice and rushing water has altered the surroundings. During the last ice age, around 18,000 years ago, ice covered the mountain ridges between Bettmerhorn and Riederhorn. This can be seen by observing the rocks, the area that was covered by ice is smooth and rounded, while the two peaks remain sharp and jagged. The glacier also significantly receded making a way for the Aletsch Forest around 11,000 years ago. This is also how scientists today calculate how much the glacier has receded, by examining the new habitats being created.
A huge variety of alpine habitats depend on the glacier for water. The recession of the glacier is exposing more rocky landscape and is allowing for animals to expand their territories. Considering the only thing that can live inside the ice is a . One of the main targets of UNESCO is to contribute to the protection and restoration of the surrounding region. Local experts have worked with UNESCO to target the species most vulnerable to change during these changing times. They have a whole section on their website dedicated to educating about these habitats.
What We Need to Take Away
So what can we learn from the Aletsch Glacier? It is that the factories in china and asia making your cheap shoes for H&M and Nike, still effect the nature in our backyards. I looked at the alps every day (which was not cloudy) for 15 years when I lived in France. Their magnificent picturesque beauty seemed untouchable by the world’s climate change problems, however they are even more vulnerable than most. Millions of people depend on the glaciers to provide potable water, fresh water for irrigation and the powerful rivers for hydroelectric power. (Which powers 56% of Switzerland!) This number has dropped from 90% in the 1970’s due to the introduction of nuclear power.
The Aletsch-Jungfrau glacier, which has carved valleys and shaped mountains now needs our help. Slowing the emission of green house gases needs to be a priority of governments (cough cough, I’m looking at you America and Australia) but also of us as individuals.
Did you know that even if we eliminated all fossil fuel burning we would still break the carbon dioxide safe amount in our atmosphere? All through raising cattle.
There are many things you can do as an individual : ride your bike, take the electric train, invest in good quality long lasting items, shop second hand, buy local produce and almost most importantly, decrease your consumption of animal products. By eliminating meat from your diet you can cut your carbon emissions by half! So please consider this when going for your next shop. We only have one earth, and I would like to one day stand next to the Belle Alp Hotel looking at the Glacier with my children. Because at this rate, it’s not going to be there.