4% of Swiss Ice Lost in 2023 – so what?

Prof. Neil Entwistle, Alpine Glacier Project

And just like that, summer is over, the clocks in Britain go back and darkness befalls us before we return home from work.  In Zermatt, we’re still waiting for the winter snowpack to arrive. An early flurry of heavy snow fell in late August into September protected the glaciers from melting for a few weeks but the wider precipitation event resulted in serious flooding around central Europe.

The 2022 ablation season was the most severe on record with 6.2% of ice mass lost on average across Switzerland, a previous blog post detailed more on this.[NE1]  It could be argued that the 2023 season was not as bad; only 4% lost, however, before 2022 any loss in the region of 2% was deemed “extreme”! Collectively in the last 2 years 10% has gone. The below contrast image taken from this summers field season contrasts two summers approximately 130 years apart. The change is staggering. This image was posted on our social media and the comments were interesting. Some were shocked at the scale of change. Where others suggested this is not an issue as glaciers come and go.

Here we need to address the medieval warm period in simple terms. From 900 – 1300 AD, it was warm; perhaps glaciers in the Zermatt area had retreated completely and did not exist. Early paints from the area suggest some ice held on to the high peaks. Then climate changed, it got colder and we entered the little ice age period.  

The naive argument given to my picture above was “that ain’t nothing that this planet has not seem before” with the underlying tone of so what. Well, it’s quite simple really. Right now, over 8 billion people exist on our planet. But if we look at the rate of population change over time we have a problem. Currently 1/5th of the world utilises and relies on water from draining glaciers. As that water declines, and perhaps disappears as glaciers recede then people will be forced to move. How will they be supported? How will our water supplies cope? In 2018 Cape Town, South Africa very nearly ran out of water. This highlighted just how fragile water supplies are. None of the 11 cities reported to be most vulnerable are in areas where rivers flow from glaciers. That’s because glaciers mitigate the impact of droughts.

Whilst it is easy to type, and anonymity online makes it easy to create fake rebuttals. Here at the AGP we are scientists and believe in hard data, which can be fact checked. When I first went to the Zermatt mountains 20 years ago. Where I’m stood in the picture below was deep within the Findeln glaciers ice mass. The ice has gone and with is most of the mass associated with this glacier. It’s only through seeing and documenting change first hand, and the impact it is having on the environment that we can truly understand what kind of world we are leaving for the next generation. There is hope, and there are good people working tirelessly to help the most vulnerable.  So for those who may be downtrodden, or impacted by climate deniers, leave them to their keyboards. Research, read, engage and make that small difference for the greater good. The compounding impact will be huge.

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