Let it Snow… and Save a Glacier

Posted by on May 30, 2017

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Snow machines would be used to cover a section of the glacier (Source: Hans/Creative Commons).

News about shrinking glaciers is not uncommon, but have you ever heard of regrowing one artificially? That is exactly what a team of researchers intends to do: use snow machines, also known as Schneekanonen (snow-cannons) in German, to save Morteratsch Glacier in the Swiss Alps.

Felix Keller, a glaciologist at the Academia Engiadina in Switzerland, and Johannes Oerlemans, director of the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, will use snow machines to slow down, or even reverse, the retreat of the glacier as announced at the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, Austria, on April 27th.

Morteratsch, located in Pontresina in the canton of Graubünden, is the third largest glacier in the Eastern Alps. It is also one of the most easily accessible glaciers: a 50-minute walk from Morteratsch train station along a hiking trail leads visitors directly to the glacier tongue. This makes it a popular tourist attraction that contributes to the economy of the region. However, the glacier has been shrinking rapidly because of climate change, retreating about 2.5 kilometers over the last 150 years.

Morteratsch Glacier is easily accessible by a foot traill (Source: Simo Räsänen/Creative Commons).

The plan to save the glacier using snow machines was inspired by the successful use of white fleece coverings to slow down the retreat of the nearby Diavolezzafirn Glacier. This method has been applied over the past 10 years to help the glacier grow by up to 8 meters in length. Locals reached out to Oerlemans and Keller, who have done prior research in the region, to try to save Morteratsch in a similar manner, except the latest plan involves covering sections of the glacier with snow to reduce melting during the summer.

The municipality of Pontresina, in whose territory the glacier is situated, is trying to position itself as a village at the forefront of climate change issues,” Daniel Farinotti, a glaciologist at both Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), shared in an interview with GlacierHub.

Pontresina and Morteratsch glacier can be reached by train (Source: Creative Commons).

A layer of snow will protect the ice from incoming radiation, which would warm up the glacier. A secondary and smaller effect would be to protect the ice from overlying air, which could be above freezing. Models used by the researchers suggest that a thin layer of snow covering under one square kilometer at the top of the glacier would be enough to protect the glacier. Oerlemans also estimates that this could help the glacier regain 800 meters of length in two decades.

This plan would involve the use of 4,000 snow machines, which produce snow from water and pressurized air. They will be supplied with meltwater from a nearby glacier, which addresses a key concern: “If we want to do it on a larger scale, the main challenge will be the availability and transportation of meltwater onto the glacier,” Oerlemans shared with GlacierHub.

Not everyone is convinced that the plan will work. “I am still a little skeptical that the technical problems are solved and would like to see answers to some questions,” Greg Greenwood, executive director of the Mountain Research Initiative, shared with GlacierHub. These questions include exactly where the snow will be deposited, financial and environmental costs, and a comparison with other technical options.

Oerlemans and Keller are currently conducting a pilot project costing $100,000 at the foot of Diavolezzafirn glacier, also in Switzerland. 13 feet of snow will be blown over the 1,300-square-foot glacier by the end of the month. If it works, they hope that the Swiss government will fund the Morteratsch project, which will cost several million Swiss Francs.

We will try to get the glacier through the summer with one snow machine. We can produce snow only 5 percent of the time, but it could be sufficient as making snow is faster than the melting process,” Oerlemans explained.

The glacier is part of Switzerland’s longest downhill glacier ski run (Source: Terje Sollie/Creative Commons).

Morteratsch glacier is part of Switzerland’s longest downhill glacier ski run, making it part of a popular ski destination. However, the project is also being attempted to protect water supplies, as meltwater is often an important source of water in mountainous regions.

Costs are a concern, particularly those related to “how much energy they would require per unit of time,” Farinotti shared. “This would be one of the key numbers needed to assess whether the project is sensible or not,” he added. Oerlemans also explained that the need to cover a large area for many years will contribute to significant costs.

Snow machines use electricity to make snow from water. Although Switzerland produces about 65 percent of its electricity from hydropower, it still relies on fossil fuels for a proportion of its electricity. As such, energy use is also an important consideration in relation to the indirect production of greenhouse gases.

It is unlikely that this plan can  provide a solution to glacier recession due to the high costs of the endeavor and the difficulties of up-scaling it. However, it could send very compelling messages depending on how it is communicated. “The initiative could be very powerful in conveying the message that even partially offsetting climate change impacts will need tremendous efforts.” Farinotti said. “The project could be powerful in putting a price on this kind of initiative.”

Check out other geoengineering projects, such as this one to refreeze the Arctic or an artificial glacier built to help save some of Ladakh’s winter water for the summertime.

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