Shrinking Glaciers

Glaciers in the High Alps are shrinking rapidly as a result of climatic change through warmer summers and drier winters. The Alpine Glacier Project has a unique visual record of these changes to the extent of glaciation in the Findelen and Gorner valleys, with a photographic archive extending back to the early 1970s.

In the post pandemic lockdown summer of 2021, we began a programme of comparative photography taking new images from exactly the same locations as the Alpine Glacier Project originals. We show the first of these image sets below. You can use the slider to compare the images.

The extent of ice retreat at Findelen Glacier, with images taken from close to Fluhalp, show marked annual variation (approximately 52m) – but the comparison of original imagery taken in the 1970s with that of summer 2021 shows just how dramatic the reduction of ice has been.

Findelen Glacier retreat over a single year

The first images below were taken from the gauging station at Findelen Glacier, and show an extreme decline in glacial extent. In 1976, the glacier tongue extended to within metres of the gauge intake (the metal bars), and the lateral moraines were limited in extent. By comparison, in 2021, the glacier has retreated several hundred metres from this point (at least 1,235m) , and lost a significant proportion of its depth.

Lateral moraines at Findelen are now approximately 90 metres high, and further upstream a series of large proglacial lagoons have developed. At the top of the image, much of the ice has disappeared from the Adlerhorn, and no longer connects with Findelen Glacier.

Findelen Glacier in summer 1976 (Left) and in summer 2021 (Right).

Ice retreat at Gorner Glacier is also significant, as shown in the comparative images here in the relatively short period of 2011 to 2021, losing at least 384m. The glacier has declined in both planimetric extent and height, becoming covered in a layer of debris as a result. Glaciers that once connected further up the valley have declined and become detached from the main ice flow.

Gorner Glacier in Summer 2011 (Left) and in Summer 2021 (Right)

The most dramatic change at Gorner has been the retreat of the glacier tongue. These images taken from the same spot in Summer 1976 and again in Summer 2021 show a complete disappearance of ice of several metres depth.

Historic length change data from the Glacier Monitoring Service Switzerland (GLAMOS) show that since the late 1800s, Gorner glacier has retreated by nearly 3km.

Source: Glacier Monitoring Service, Switzerland

At Gorner, the tongue itself is no longer visible from the gauging station downstream, and access to the glacier portal is hazardous.

The Gorner Glacier Tongue in Summer 1976 (left) and Summer 2021

This comparative imagery is part of the Alpine Glacier Project’s long term record documenting meltwater quality, quantity and ice mass in the Zermatt Valley. Please consider donating to the Alpine Glacier Project, ensuring that we can continue our important research.