Glacier Shrinkage in the Alps
Scientist have been watching global warming, and 'mans effect on climate change for some years now. In discussing global climate change and its impact on the world’s glaciers scientists from the University of Zurich Switzerland recently argued that should current temperatures increase overall by between two and five degrees, the European Alps could worryingly see some 80 per cent of glacial cover being lost by the end of the 21st century. In addition to this, the World Environmental Day (June 5th, 2007) was attended by many leading climate experts who noted that snow falls levels were 1.3% down on previous decades. Scientists there warned that a rise in temperature of only one degree could raise the snowline in the Alps by 150metres which would have a serious impact on Europe’s low lying ski resorts.
In further examining glacial shrinkage we understand that in addition to the weather patterns, resort latitude and orientation also play key roles in glacial creation and stability. There are some European glaciers that have lost glacial mass at a faster rate than others and these additional contributing factors could be to blame. Swiss and Austrian resorts have noted a marked change in their glacier retreat since the early 1980s. Studies on this subject indicate that these glaciers have lost almost a fifth of their total area since 1985, this rate is seven times faster than the previous 123 years.
The Sarennes glacier is located in the Grandes Rousses massif in the Southern Alps. Over the past 20 years the glacier has been significant reduction in glacial mass with more than 20 metres of its glacier disappearing. In contrast to this, Tignes has similarly noted a reduction in its glacier mass on the Grand Mott, albeit though at a less dramatic rate. Didier Richard, a glacier specialist with the CEMAGREF in Grenoble (an agricultural and environmental engineering facility), commented recently that the Alpe d’Huez glacier will ’without doubt have disappeared by 2050!’ which is worrying for the environment and surrounding wildlife, but also for the resort’s tourism industry and water supplies. In 2006 Alpe d'Huez chose not open the glacier for summer skiing as it had done for many previous summers. This was not due to a lack of snow that winter, in fact, the snow record for the winter 2005/06 season had been pretty good for the Southern Alps. At the time, a spokesman for the resort commented that there was 'a real problem with the glacier disappearing'.
Glacial shrinking is not without risks either. Frequently as glaciers retreat large glacial lakes will form behind them. Where these glacial lakes are held behind moraine dams there is always the potential that they the ice and pressure could cause the moraine to break creating widespread flooding in the valleys below. In the Himalayas for example, there has been many examples where glacial lakes pose a threat to local valley communities. Closer to home, in 1892 a lake that was fed from the Glacier de Tete Rousse burst its banks emptying 200,000 cubic metres of water into the town of St. Gervais, killing 200 people. Only recently, a large glacial lake measuring five hectares across and 25 metres deep formed due to summer melt at the back of the Glacier de Rochemelon (3218m) in the Savoie area of France. In this instance, current glacial experts were monitoring the situation and the lake was drained to avoid any risk to the local valley population. Phew!
Probably one of the most visual examples of 'Glacier Meltdown' is in Chamonix, France. Chamonix is home to some of the most well known glaciers namely, Mer de Glace (sea of ice), Glacier d'Argentière and the Glacier des Bossons. All are pretty spectacular pieces of scenery but statistical analysis of glaciers indicates that many European glaciers have been steadily receding since the early part of this century. Take for example the Glacier des Bossons. Long hot and dry summers during 1995 and the early 2000s saw 'glacier melt' accelerate significantly, loosing some twenty meters in length and volume. The summer of 2003 was the hottest European summer on record, with temperatures in Chamonix alone reaching nearly 40 degrees!
Whilst these images give cause for concern, the 1995 receding position of the glacier was actually comparable to that of 1952 where a natural period of glacial regression created a similar effect. Don't worry though, the Glacier des Bossons is not going anywhere fast. It is in fact possible that the Glacier des Bossons is currently in such a period of natural regression and it has yet to reach a balance point where it can commence its redevelopment. It is bizarre to think though that at the turn of the 20th century, religious processions were once organised to push back the Glacier des Bossons as it threatened the houses and farms in the village of Chamonix! Maybe the almighty forces that be finally started listening a century later?!
Further examples of 'Glacial meltdown'
During the summer of 2005, the Glacier d’Argentière in Chamonix, France; experienced a substantial sérac collapse on the tongue of the glacier. A large 200m section of ice broke away from the main body of the glacier and at the time, it was reported to be one of the largest collapses seen in the area. Experts then predicted that if the pattern of warm summers and dry winters continued, this tongue part of the glacier would disappear in around 20 years. Since 2005, the distance between this ‘tongued’ area and main body of the glacier has increased quite significantly.