Two years of exceptional warming in the Alps have wiped 10% of Swiss glacier volume — the same amount lost in the three decades preceding 1990, according to a report released Thursday.
The study, published in the journal Cryospheric Commission (CC) of the Swiss Academy of Sciences, revealed a catastrophic glacial retreat and warned that the situation will only worsen.
“Swiss glaciers are melting at a rapidly increasing rate,” it said in a statement.
2022 marked the worst year on record for glacier melt in the Swiss Alps, with six percent of the total ice volume lost.
The glaciers have not fared much better this year, the CC report showed, with another four percent of ice volume destroyed, “representing the second largest decline since measurements began”.
“The acceleration is dramatic, with as much ice being lost in only two years as was the case between 1960 and 1990,” it said.
The result of two consecutive extreme years had been collapsing glacier tongues and some smaller glaciers vanishing all together.
“All glaciers melted a lot,” Matthias Huss, head of Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland (GLAMOS), told AFP.
“But for the small glaciers, (the) melting is especially dramatic because these small glaciers are really disappearing right now.”
GLAMOS, which monitors 176 of Switzerland’s some 1,400 glaciers, recently halted measurements at the St. Annafirn glacier in the central Swiss canton of Uri since it had all but disappeared.
“We just had some dead ice left,” Huss lamented.
The massive glacier loss seen in Switzerland was linked in large part to a winter with very low snow volumes, as well as soaring summer temperatures.
“It’s a combination of climate change that makes such extreme events more likely, and the very bad combination of meteorological extremes,” Huss explained.
“If we continue at this rate… we will see every year such bad years.”
Scientists have already warned that the Swiss glaciers could all but disappear by the end of the century without more action to rein in global warming.
“We have seen such strong climate changes in the last years that it’s really possible to imagine this country without any glaciers,” Huss said.
‘Stabilise the climate’
He emphasized the importance of “stabilizing the climate by reducing CO2 emissions to zero as soon as possible.”
However, Huss admitted that even if the world met the Paris targets of reducing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, only around a third of Switzerland’s glacier volume would be protected.
That means that “all the small glaciers will be gone anyway, and the big glaciers will be much smaller”, he said, but stressed that at least “there will be some ice in the highest regions of the Alps and some glaciers that we can show to our grandchildren.”
This year’s melt affected glaciers throughout Switzerland, with the south and east of the country being most heavily damaged.
According to the researchers, the average ice thickness loss there was up to three metres (9.8 feet) and was “considerably higher than the values recorded in the hot summer of 2003.”
The study found that even glaciers above 3,200 meters (10,500 feet), which had “preserved their equilibrium” until recently, had seen several metres of ice wash away.
The winter months of 2022-23 saw almost no precipitation, resulting in significantly less snow cover than typical, followed by the third-warmest summer in the Alps since records began.
The freezing point over the mountain range soared to 5,298 metres (17,381 ft) at one time, far above the highest peaks and breaking the zero-degree line record.