(CN) — Over the past two years, glaciers in Switzerland lost 10% of their volume as heat and a lack of snow combined to cause catastrophic melting, Swiss scientists said Thursday.
“Swiss glaciers are melting at a rapidly increasing rate,” the Swiss Academy of Sciences said in a new report. “The acceleration is dramatic, with as much ice being lost in only two years as was the case between 1960 and 1990.”
Scientists say climate change is speeding up glacier loss around the world, with worst-case scenarios projecting glaciers in the Alps may disappear almost entirely by the end of the century.
In Switzerland, glaciers lost 6% of their volume last year and 4% this year, the highest and second-highest declines since measurements began, according to data collected by the Swiss Commission for Cryosphere Observation of the Swiss Academy of Sciences.
“This massive loss of ice is the result of a winter with very low volumes of snow and high temperatures during the summer,” researchers said in the report. “The melting of glaciers affected the whole of Switzerland.”
Over the past two years, many small glaciers have disappeared entirely and sections of larger ones have collapsed, according to the report. Glacier loss can lead to rock slides and perilous conditions for hikers and mountaineers.
“The losses we've seen in 2022 and 2023 are simply mind-blowing and beyond everything we have experienced so far,” said Matthias Huss, the head of Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland, a research group that tracks Switzerland's glaciers, in an email. His group worked on the study.
“Even though glaciers have constantly and quickly been losing mass for many decades, this is a tremendous acceleration,” he said.
In all, there are about 1,400 glaciers in Switzerland covering about 371 square miles, according to Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland.
When a glacier melts, it loses surface ice, and the new report included photographs of scientists holding up tall poles to show how many feet of ice had disappeared.
In the worst-hit places, up to 9 feet of ice melted on top of glaciers located above 10,000 feet of altitude in the Valais and Engadin valleys along the southern border with Italy.
The melting was accelerated by a near-total lack of precipitation during the 2022-2023 winter on both sides of the Alps, the researchers said. Combined with very high temperatures, lower levels of snow were found at monitoring stations across Switzerland and record lows were recorded in many places, the scientists said.
Then dry and extremely warm conditions from June through the summer caused earlier-than-usual snow melt and played a big part in glacier loss, the study found.
This year, Switzerland saw its third-warmest summer since measurements began and recorded a new high "zero-degree line",which is the altitude where the temperature falls below freezing (zero degrees Celsius). Each summer, Switzerland sends up weather balloons to measure the freezing point in the mountains.
Huss said the dramatic glacier melt “would have been impossible without climate change.”
All the melting led to high amounts of water runoff and that provided some relief to drought conditions and filled up reservoirs used for hydropower, he said.
But he called those “transient and short-lived” benefits because it would be much better for water to be locked away for centuries on the highest peaks.
“With their shrinkage, glaciers are rapidly losing their important role to contribute water when we need it,” Huss said. “This will aggravate water scarcity during heat waves in the near future.”
The long-term forecast for Switzerland's glaciers is dire, with global temperatures expected to continuing rising.
“It is very clear that glaciers in the Alps will continue to massively shrink and retreat,” he said.
Under a scenario where global carbon emissions are brought under control by 2050, Huss said about 30% of the ice volume in Switzerland's glaciers could be saved by the end of the century.
“But at the moment the global community is not on track to that goal,” he said.
Instead, with the world on pace for a 2.7-degree Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature rise since pre-industrial times, a recent study predicted that by the year 2100 the planet could lose 32% of its glacier mass, or 48.5 trillion metric tons of ice, as well as see 68% of glaciers disappear.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
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