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.”

BBC2’s The Lakes with Simon Reeve

The Alpine Glacier Project’s Dr Neil Entwistle appeared on episode 2 of BBC2’s The Lakes with Simon Reeve, broadcast on the 21st November.

In this episode, Simon talked to Neil who is trying to understand flooding in Carlisle, which he believes is caused by a mixture of climate change and the upstream flooding of artificially straightened rivers. The programme also looks into Neil’s project to restore the original boundaries of such rivers, which can also help to return wetlands like Foulshaw Moss to their former glory. 

The programme is available to watch on BBC IPlayer here.

AGP to participate in GAUC Global Youth Summit

Congratulations to the Alpine Glacier Project’s Zayd Abid-Waheed who will present a paper in the upcoming 3rd GAUC Graduate Forum & Global Youth Summit on Net-Zero Futures later this month.

The GAUC (Global Alliance Of Universities on Climate) states its aims are to “synergize the momentum of climate actions brought by the global major climate events including New York Climate Week, the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15), and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26)”.

Organising the event are Columbia University, the University of Oxford, Yale University, and Tsinghua University, as part of the COP 26 Universities Network.

Zayd’s conference abstract follows below:

Hydropower Longevity: 2D Modelling of Sediment Dynamics in Climate Impacted Glacier Fed River Basins

Glaciers are a significant contributor of sediment into a hydrological system and, with the acceleration of deglaciation due to a changing climate, this presents an increased sediment load in high mountain areas. This represents a problem for glacier-fed hydropower schemes such those in Switzerland, which produce 56% of energy through hydropower. Sedimentation is the most common source of failure and inefficiency in hydropower, according to present research.

Prior research, however, suggests that periglacial and proglacial systems (environments located on the margin of past glaciers) through slope and depositional processes will lose much of the energy, and thereby sediment, before reaching hydropower infrastructure. However, this is theoretical and unobserved due to the difficulties of high mountain environments. Therefore, this paper aims to use innovative techniques to model the sediment dynamics of high mountain glacial catchments to identify the mechanics and validity of this phenomenon on multiple basins over time. This study also serves as a trailblazing and novel first test for the accuracy and limits of 2D modelling software in an extreme environment. The study further aims to investigate the climatic changes over time that these sedimentation patterns have had, using historic datasets to model and investigate how proximity of the historic glacial terminus affects trends using datasets stemming back to the Little Ice Age (1850).

Initial results on the single site of Findelngletscher, Switzerland, for this in-progress study show that, indeed, sediment connectivity acts in the self-managing status observed by other studies with significantly less sediment delivered to the hydropower inlet location, with much of the glacial sediment being dissipated in depositional alluvial systems. Further modelling is to be carried out to identify this trend over time as well as on the two additional catchments; Gornergletscher and Glacier d’Arolla, Switzerland, to identify how topography influences sediment connectivity in Alpine systems.

2021 Field Visit

Finally….the 2021 field trip is underway. After the relaxation of travel restrictions from August 27th, with Switzerland added to the UK government green list, we’ve been able to start a small expedition to Findelen and Gorner glaciers to maintain the equipment, download data, and start out comparative photography project to show the extend of deglaciation in the Zermatt region.

Early indications are that whilst some data loggers reached capaity in July, the majority of data for the 2021 season are intact with equipment functioning properly. Weather conditions have been good – warm with cloud coverage between 0/8 and 3/8.

Findelen outwash plain, August 30th 2021

At Findelen, batteries have been changed for all of the logging sites, with data available from all loggers barring a couple. The glacier continues to retreat into the distance, a shadow of its former self as evidenced by the moraine extent in this image.

Red Paint – Prof. Liz Morris

As I walked down to the Gorner Glacier with a small group of David’s friends to scatter his ashes I was casting surreptitious glances at the exposed roches moutonees at the end of the path. A guilty conscience was troubling me. Now it seems unbelievable that any decent fieldworker would vandalise the environment she was studying; in 1976, believe it or not, I thought it would be fine to “touch up” interesting features with red paint so they could be recorded in photographs. So was the red rash still there on the roches moutonnees after 40 years? I didn’t spot anything, but in past years many people must have wondered what on earth had been going on.

I had just moved to the Institute of Hydrology after a 2 year post-doc at UEA looking at sub-glacial erosion.  Leslie Morland and I had written a paper on stress fractures in roche moutonnees and I wanted to continue to investigate sub-glacial features. DNC gave me the chance, with an invitation to join him in Switzerland, and I was soon happily recording chatter marks, crescentic gouges and fractures with a high tech (i.e. waterproof) yellow field notebook and  a very fetching matching yellow oilskin outfit.

I still have the data, but sadly my efforts didn’t seem to lead to any great insights about erosion, so the next time I joined Dave and the AGP team, in 1979, I had switched my attention to energy budget modelling over snow. Not far from the George Elliston Hut was an enticing patch of snow. I set up my AWS on possibly the most eccentric site ever chosen for boundary layer meteorology. However, the view was fabulous and I had the advantage of being near any extra sardines or Vesta curry that might be on offer – an important consideration in those days. I had been stunned to learn, on a visit to Peyto Glacier with Dave the previous year, that Canadian glaciologists lived on steak in the field, but the AGP was having none of it. Fresh bread got carried in on special occasions but I’m not sure Dave approved of such effete living.

None of us then could have imagined that the AGP would be still going strong now. I hope the current generation of young scientists gets as much out of their experiences on the Gorner Glacier as I did long ago – and it is as happy a time for them as it was for me.

Professor Liz Morris graduated from the University of Bristol in 1967 and remained at the Bristol Physics Department to study for a PhD. Her research interests include (i) basal processes of alpine glaciers (ii) development of physics-based models for hydrological and hydrochemical processes especially those involving snow and ice and (iii) the mass balance and dynamics of polar ice sheets. She has worked in the European Alps, Canadian Rockies, Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Svalbard and Antarctica.

Liz was appointed OBE in the Millennium Honours List for services to Polar Science and was awarded the Polar Medal in 2003. In 2012 she gave the Nye Lecture at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union. In 2015 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate at the University of Bristol and Honorary Membership of the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences. In 2016 she was awarded the Richardson Medal of the International Glaciological Society.