An Alps without Glaciers

Zayd Abid-Waheed, Ph.D candidate at the University of Salford reflects on what changing climate may mean for Alpine glaciers.

“Significant glacial retreat in the European Alps is an inevitable reality that scientists within the cryosphere have been gripping with for the last half century of research. Often viewed as the canary in the mine for the glacial impacts of climate change; the extent to which ice is to be lost and has been lost already can lead to a challenging outlook for Europe’s frozen water towers.

The extent of glacial retreat in fact is so marked that even if countries fall within the goals of keeping global temperature increase below 2oC within the “optimal climate scenario” there would still an expected loss of glacierized area (35%), volume (20%) and runoff (70%) by the year 2100 (Salzmann, et al., 2012). The largest glacier in Switzerland and the Alps the Grosser Aletschgletscher would by 2150 have essentially the same extent of glacial retreat with the 2oC goal as it would in 2098 without mitigation (Salzmann Et al., 2012). The ideal scenario globally regarding the UN goals is still a reality in which alpine glaciers do not survive. What does this mean for the Alps? What does this mean physically and socially, can anything be done?

Physically the loss of glacial mass and runoff will lead towards the growing change from a glacial environment to a proglacial and periglacial environment. As permanent ice stops becoming the defining part of the environment the geomorphological impacts of this shift that will occur over the next 100 years will see a dynamic and changing environment (as is the subject of my own research here at the AGP) but research suggests this will be a short-lived phenomena as shrinking glaciers eventually lead to lower flows even in seasonally higher discharge periods.

The impact socially and procedurally on economics of these physical phenomena is significant. Firstly, the retreat of the snow line will no doubt have impacts on tourism for the numerous resort towns within the alps, the peak skiing seasons shrinking alongside the available area for winter sports. This has led to often bizarre but none the less impressive undertakings to literally cover glaciers and snowfields with white insulating materials to retain as much snow as possible in areas of the Swiss and Italian alps. These methods of literally covering snow are currently limited to a few resorts however this mitigation is certain to gain popularity as the retreat sets in further in the Alps.

Regarding the economics of water availability and hydropower the impacts are of two facets. Firstly, the availability of water is likely to not be as affected by the loss of glaciers here in the Alps and whilst this is a concern in other areas of the world fed by glaciers; Switzerland need not fear scarcity of water due to a loss of glaciers at least according to current research and predictions. The other facet however is significantly more difficult to address, namely Switzerland’s own dependency, as a hydropower fuelled nation, principally supplied from glacial sources, future runoff reductions will no doubt present a challenge towards hydropower. As discussed in my own research this comes in the form of less water to generate hydropower but also more sediment rich water which only serves to reduce efficiency of hydropower infrastructure or occasionally cause total failure of aging structures installed during the last century. As such some engineers and researchers propose a replacement for the glacial water towers considering this problem, namely high mountain reservoirs in place of glaciers. This particularly dystopian and hard to imagine future of heavily engineered dams in the highest and often most beautiful and remote environments in Europe is not as far away as one may think. This would be the truest vision of an Alps without Glaciers.

With these predictions outlined across research the question remains: What can be done? With the inevitability of glacial retreat in the Swiss Alps the focus has long since shifted from trying to save these glaciers. The window of opportunity for that likely was gone before I was even born, rather we should focus on how to mitigate these inevitable changes in geomorphology and economic needs in a way that balances the human needs from these environments alongside sustainable and economically sound policy. Ensuring that research into solutions to the problems that this inevitable change presents works alongside natural processes, to the good of both the environment and the humans that depend on it. Such research has and always will be a major part of the Alpine Glacier Project and such philosophies of mitigation should be elevated and spread to governing bodies and authorities to deliver an Alps without glaciers that remains as beautiful for future generations as it has been for our own.”

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