New Glacial Lakes to Transform Swiss Landscape

Posted by on Jan 27, 2015

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Ongoing climate change is causing glaciers in the Swiss Alps to shrink dramatically, and some predict they will disappear entirely by the end of the century. As they melt over the coming decades, Swiss scientists estimate that 500 to 600 new lakes covering close to 50 square kilometers of land will form in Switzerland. That’s about the equivalent of two Lake Eries, the eleventh largest lake in the world.

“The rapid melting of glaciers is radically changing the Alpine landscape,” world renowned Swiss glacier expert and University of Zurich professor Wilfried Haeberli reported at the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) in Vienna, according to Spiegel.

Haeberli and a team of scientists recently completed a project that attempts to predict where and when these new lakes will form using glacier bed models and time-based ablation scenarios for all Swiss glaciers. Using case studies, they also looked at the potential natural hazards that could be created by these new lakes, the development potential they might offer in terms of hydroelectric energy and tourism and legal issues they might present in terms of ownership, liability, exploitation and conservation.

One lake in particular they studied was Lake Trift in the Valley of Gadmen, which appeared in the 1990s due to melting of the Altesch Glacier. Local authorities built a breathtaking suspension bridge over the lake that has since become a tourist attraction. Energy companies are also considering putting it to use for the generation of hydroelectric power. The creation of a dam, which would be necessary for such a project, would likely diminish the attractiveness of the site for tourists, but it could protect the area against the risk of flooding.

“Whether the lake remains natural or becomes artificial, there is a significant risk of rock or ice avalanches due to the longterm destabilisation of slopes previously supported by the Trift glacier and the potential collapse of the current glacier tongue,” the scientists write. “Such avalanches can trigger a surge wave in the lake with disastrous consequences. The construction of a dam of adequate size could protect the area from floods and allow for the generation of power but it would reduce the appeal for tourists.”

Haeberli and his colleagues urge that debates over some of these complex issues begin now, before the Swiss landscape transforms from one of glaciers to one of glacial lakes.

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