A Swiss Community Fights to Save their Glacier

The Morteratsch Glacier. (Source: Johannes Oerlemans)
The Morteratsch glacier (Source: Johannes Oerlemans).

The local community of Pontresina, in the Swiss Alps, has commissioned a study due to concerns of losing their glacier. The study investigates the feasibility of slowing down the retreat of the Morteratsch glacier, a popular tourist and skiing destination, by artificially producing snow.

The six km-long Morteratsch glacier is located in the southeastern part of Switzerland and ranges from 2,200 to 4,000 meters in altitude. The study researched the possibility of increasing the mass budget of the glacier, or at least slowing down the glacier retreat, by using meltwater from lakes to artificially produce snow, a process of meltwater recycling. A snow cover implies a significant positive effect on the surface mass balance as it prevents ice melt at the surface.

As climate warms, projections indicate continuous increasing future temperatures; however, the precise increase is difficult to determine. Scientists have expressed concern about the Swiss Alps losing their ice by the end of the century if glaciers continue to melt at the current rate. There are about 1,800 glaciers in the Swiss Alps, and between 1850 and 1975, most of the glaciers lost half of their mass, according the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation.

The study takes into consideration three different warming scenarios. For the case of modest warming, for example, the study shows a difference in glacier length between 400 and 500 meters within two decades if artificial snow is produced. However, focused on the feasibility of artificial snow, the study also expresses how this approach would be expensive for the community of Pontresina. The authors state that “it is not a technical recommendation but a feasibility study, representing an important contribution to the discussion about possible local measures to deal with glacier vanishing and related impacts for humans and their infrastructure.”

The Morteratsch Glacier, Bernina railway. (Source: Caihy/Flickr).

Due to climate projections, the community of Pontresina remains concerned about their glacier, which has lost about 35 meters per year. Over 90,000 people visit Pontresina annually to explore the 350 km of ski runs in the winter and 500 km of hiking trails during the summer. The community depends on tourism, with tourism marketing concentrating on the surrounding mountains and glaciers. The disappearance of the Morteratsch glacier would greatly affect the economy, making tourism less attractive.

Wilfried Haeberli, senior scientist at the University of Zurich, told GlacierHub, “The tongue of Morteratsch glacier had been a famous attraction to visitors of the region because it was easily accessible from the train station and road. Within less than one hour, people (including children) could reach the lower ice margin, take pictures from very close or even touch the ice.’’ He added that ‘’Signs along the trail to the ice margin mark the positions of the historical ice retreat and thereby contribute to the ‘awareness building’ concerning global warming. The access to the ice is now becoming longer and more difficult.” Even as the melting of the ice begins to affect tourism in the Swiss Alps, the long-term impact on the economy in the region is a complex question influenced by many other issues, such as foreign exchange rates, Haeberli said.

Glacier melting might also create additional problems by impacting water supply and causing natural dangers. For example, it might lead to the formation of lakes. A larger lake below steep slopes with unsupported hanging glaciers and degrading permafrost has the potential to create strongly increased risks from flood waves. This would alter access to the glacier and could even disrupt the railway at Morteratsch and infrastructure further down the valley.

Though it is possible to slow down the ice retreat and formation of an upper critical lake by the Morteratsch glacier, such measures would come at a high price. Haeberli told GlacierHub that the community has begun to explore different means to address the problem of lake formation and evaluate the areas that could be affected by such hazards. The responsible authorities became aware of the risks several years ago as information and knowledge was provided through the framework of a national research program and a corresponding project on newly formed lakes in de-glaciating mountain regions.

Pontresina (Source: Prabhu Shankar/Flickr).

Although other communities have asked for studies to save their glaciers, this is a rare case as it is the first to investigate artificial snow as a possible solution, Haeberli explained. Research has been completed in Austria, for example, concerning covering glaciers with protective blankets made of white plastic to reduce glacier retreat in connection to ski runs on glaciers.

Christine Jurt, anthropologist at Bern University of Applied Sciences, told GlacierHub that although it is rare for a community to request a study for artificial snow, many municipalities probably ask themselves the same question of whether there is a way to save their glacier. “Glaciers are crucial in terms of reservoirs of water and economic activities, particularly tourism, but often also in terms of identity and community,” Jurt added.

The study of slowing down the retreat of the Morteratsch glacier was inspired by the success of the Diavolezza glacier in Switzerland. The Diavolezza was covered with protective blankets made of white plastic to maintain parts of the winter snowpack throughout the summer. However, scientists have indicated that covering glaciers with protective blankets cannot be done on big surfaces, making it an unrealistic solution for the Morteratsch glacier. Therefore, the focus for Pontresina switched to adding mass to the glacier by producing artificial snow.

The Morteratsch Glacier (Source: Thomas Meier/Flickr)

Though snow deposition does not immediately take effect, it can reduce glacier shrinkage if maintained for some time. Researchers state that, if used for a decade the difference in glacier length ranges from 400-500 meters. The study of slowing down retreat of the Morteratsch glacier, has shown that deposition of artificial snow on the glacier can have a significant effect on the glacier’s future evolution.

“In combination with even modest mitigation of climate change in the near future, artificial snow could make the difference between a valley with a large lake, or a valley with a glacier in the second half of this century,” stated the authors of the study.

Although the only reasonable long-term solution to stop the glacier retreat worldwide is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, artificial snow represents another option to avoid losing glaciers due to increasing global temperatures. The study states that there is no simple or cheap solution with artificial snow production. Technical solutions may only become realistic in a very few cases where a lot of money can be spent, scientific information is available, and the damage potential is high. Even in such cases, technical measures may only help gain time for adaptation efforts, but these measures can hardly constitute definitive solutions in a world undergoing long-term warming.

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