More Than 90% of Glaciers in the Alps Could Be Gone by 2100

The Swiss Alps as seen from a Schweizerische Bundesbahnen high-speed train. (William Dotinga / CNS)

(CN) – New research indicates that even if global warming isn’t as severe as scientists expect it will be, half the glaciers in the Alps will disappear by 2050 and two-thirds will be gone by 2100.

There are roughly 3,500 glaciers in the Alps, which attract tourists to the area and act as natural fresh water reservoirs. Glaciers provide a source of water for the local ecology, as well as for agriculture and hydroelectricity, which is especially important in warm and dry periods.

A study conducted by researchers in Switzerland and published in the European Geosciences Union journal The Cryosphere on Tuesday used new computer models that combined ice flow and melt processes and observational data to study how the ice bodies might change in the future under different scenarios.

The model, based on a present-day volume of about 100 cubic kilometers of ice in the Alps glaciers found that under a scenario where greenhouse gas emissions peak within the next few years and then decline rapidly – keeping global warming to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels – the glaciers will be reduced to about 37 cubic kilometers by the year 2100.

And in a scenario where emissions continue to rise rapidly without check, researchers predict that the Alps will be largely ice-free by 2100, with 5 percent or less of current volumes of ice.

In any case, the study predicts the Alps glaciers will lose 50 percent of their volume by 2050, because glaciers are slow to respond to changing temperatures. Lead researcher Harry Zekollari, now at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands but formerly with ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, explained, “Even if we manage to stop the climate from warming any further, keeping it at the level of the past 10 years, glaciers would still lose about 40% of their present-day volume by 2050 because of this ‘glacier response time.’”

Study co-author Daniel Farinotti, also of ETH Zurich, struck a slightly more hopeful tone.

“Glaciers in the European Alps and their recent evolution are some of the clearest indicators of the ongoing changes in climate. The future of these glaciers in indeed at risk, but there is still a possibility to limit their future losses,” Farinotti said.

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