Not all natural boundaries are as stable as they might appear. Italy, Austria, and Switzerland’s shared borders depend on the limits of the glaciers and they have been melting at increased rates due to climate change. This has caused the border to shift noticeably in recent years. The border lies primarily at high altitudes, among tall mountain peaks where it crosses white snowfields and icy blue glaciers.
Read the story by Elza Bouhassira on Glacierhub here.
Peruvian Study Opens Doors for Glacial Research
A study published in March of this year by researchers from the University of Quebec presents a new avenue for glacier retreat research. While most water-related glacier studies are concerned with water availability, the research presented in this article is distinctive in that it draws a link between glacier retreat and water quality. This work has important implications for populations in the study area and others living in glacierized regions around the world.
Acoustics of Meltwater Drainage in Greenland Glacial Soundscapes
Remember the age-old adage, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound?” For centuries philosophers have tested our minds with such questions, and certainly the answer depends on how the individual chooses to define the word sound. Scientists would say that if by sound, we mean the physical phenomenon of wave disturbance caused by the crash, we would undoubtedly concur. Indeed, in recognizing the uniqueness of audio frequencies, the scientific practice of studying environmental soundscapes has proven effective at providing information across a varied range of phenomena. But glaciers represent a relatively new soundscape frontier.
“Glaciologists just opened their eyes to studying glaciers about 150 years ago. We started to look at glaciers from different angles, perspectives, satellites — but we forgot to open our ears,” said Dr. Evgeny Podolskiy, an assistant professor at the Arctic Research Center at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. “I’ve been studying glacier geophysics for quite some time and I found that there is this kind of natural zoo, or a universe, of sounds which we kind of totally ignored until recently.”
Read the full story by Audrey Ramming on GlacierHub here
Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a small mountain restaurant, opened in 1984 at a location high in the Italian Alps—now it might be in Switzerland. The restaurant has become the subject of a dispute between the two states due to a legal agreement which allows Italy’s northern border to move with the natural, morphological boundaries of glaciers’ frontiers, which largely follow the watersheds on either side of the ridges. The moving border has shifted over the last fifteen years since its creation as glaciers retreat and the restaurant may now be in Swiss territory. If decided to be in Switzerland, the restaurant would be subject to Swiss law, taxes, and potentially even customs; Swiss inspectors would need to approve every box of pasta and package of coffee brought up to the restaurant by cable car from Italy.
Borders can follow artificial paths, like those on maps forming perfectly straight lines, independent of the physical and cultural landscapes they may be mincing. Others are fixed by natural boundaries like the Niagara River separating the US and Canada.
However, not all natural boundaries are as stable as they might appear. Italy, Austria, and Switzerland’s shared borders depend on the limits of the glaciers and they have been melting at increased rates due to climate change. This has caused the border to shift noticeably in recent years. The border lies primarily at high altitudes, among tall mountain peaks where it crosses white snowfields and icy blue glaciers.
The moving border is an unprecedented legal concept. It was established through an agreement between Italy and Austria in 2006 and another between Italy and Switzerland in 2009. France did not sign such an agreement because of post World War II territorial gains on the Italian side of the watershed it did not want to risk losing.
The moving border’s flexibility is a highly unusual case in a world where many borders serve to mark defined lines of inclusion and exclusion. “Borders today move following the policies of exclusion from/inclusion in pursued by States. For instance, when it comes to migration, EU South external borders happen to be already in Africa, where migrants are prevented from embarking towards Europe,” international lawyer and Roma Tre University human rights professor Alice Riccardi told GlacierHub.
Since 2008, the Istituto Geografico Militare (IGM), which has defined and maintained Italy’s state borders since 1865, has conducted high-altitude survey expeditions every two years to search for shifts in the border and subsequently to update official maps. The collaborative team that conducts the survey is composed of an equal number of experts from IGM and representatives from cartographic institutes of neighboring states.
The concept of the moving border captured the attention of Marco Ferrari, an architect, and Dr. Elisa Pasqual, a visual designer. In 2014, they launched a research project and interactive installation called Italian Limes focused on the moving border. The word limes comes from Latin and was used by the Romans to describe a nebulous, unfixed fringe zone on the edge of their territorial control. The Romans viewed limes as ebbing and flowing as the Roman army advanced and retreated similar to how today the border moves as the ice drifts.
The project, featured in the 2014 Venice Biennale, explores the limits of natural borders when they are tested by long-term ecological processes and reveals how climate change has begun to wear on Western ideas of territory and borders.
“The project makes the speed of climate change visible because we are used to thinking of borders, glaciers, and mountains as things that stay fixed,” Ferrari told GlacierHub. “Climate change changes our conception of territory in a way that is not just material, it’s not just a disruption of infrastructure, but also of the geographical imagery of the planet itself. So the very idea of the border is put into crisis by climate change in this sense, it almost contradicts the possibility of being able to trace a border.”
The Italian Limes projecttakes measurements at the 1.5-kilometer long Grafferner Glacier near Mount Similaun in the Ötztal Alps at the border of Italy and Austria. GPS measurement units were installed at the site to track changes to the glacier and watershed which broadcast their data to a machine, which prints a real-time representation of the moving border.
“By looking at the history of the border we came across this specific moment in time of the mobile border that was initially presented to us as an anecdote, as a funny curiosity, a weird glitch in the normal diplomatic management of the relationship between countries. Because of how it was presented to us, we almost didn’t focus on it, but on second thought we saw that this was the nexus that could allow us to talk about all the things we wanted to talk about; it could allow us to reveal the contradiction in this idea of a natural border–how even the mountains, even the watershed, even glaciers aren’t something that is forever, the fact that they are chosen to be borders is a clear political act and when these things move the contradiction gets exposed,” Ferrari explained to GlacierHub.
The project grew to the point that Ferrari and Pasqual teamed up with architect and editor Andrea Bagnato to create A Moving Border: Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change, a 2019 book which builds on Italian Limes to map out the effects of climate change on geopolitical understandings of the border.
“I saw the project at the Venice Biennale 2014, it was a fantastic installation, and that’s when I proposed to Marco and Elisa to turn it into a book because I thought that after the work they had done physically going up on the glacier and producing these devices to visualize the movements of the glacier, there were a lot of issues to explore in more detail, historical and political issues. The book was a way to do that,” Bagnato told GlacierHub.
“The book provides a kind of historical perspective of the border and also of climate change,” Bagnato said. He continued, saying “Although we don’t address them directly in the book, I think it opens up to a lot of different geopolitical scenarios. Of course there are many situations in the world where borders pass on glaciers like in Chile/Argentina, India/Pakistan, and so on, where the geopolitics are far more heated than in Italy or Austria.”
Ultimately, the effects of climate change will introduce stresses that borders cannot keep under control. The new, quick changes to the moving border are only one such instance. The US state of Louisiana is rapidly losing ground to the waters on its coast. India and Bangladesh were involved in a dispute over who controlled an uninhabited sandbar that vanished beneath the rising seas. The province of Kashmir has long been a point of contention between Pakistan and India––if its glaciers melt and regional freshwater supply is put under great stress, conflict for control of the province could escalate significantly.
In an interview with Vice, Ferrari said “Even the biggest and most stable things, like glaciers, mountains—these huge objects, they can change in a few years. We live on a planet that changes, and we try to make rules, to give meaning, but this meaning is completely artificial because nature, basically, doesn’t give a shit.”
In December, an interdisciplinary team of climate scientists, historians, and archaeologists at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute and the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard published a study in the Journal of Geophysical Research. It detailed how they used a new, high-resolution laser technology to analyze ice from the Colle Gnifetti Glacier on the Swiss-Italian border, and how this technology allowed the team to trace the history of Saharan dust events as well as the atmospheric conditions that promote them.
Saharan dust storms are an influential weather phenomenon for both human and natural systems. Though they fertilize flourishing ecosystems, they can also harm human respiratory health, alter the frequency of North Atlantic hurricanes, and speed the melting of glaciers. Because future occurrences of Saharan dust storms are uncertain given the changing climate, many studies have looked to the past to understand the connection between these dust events and climatic patterns.
Lead author Heather Clifford is a graduate student at the University of Maine Climate Change Institute. She explained that the Saharan dust record held inside the Colle Gnifetti ice core revealed that increased dust transport historically occurs when the atmosphere creates high pressure systems over the Mediterranean and drier conditions over North Africa. Climate change models indicate that these conditions will become more vigorous, indicating a dustier future.
Clifford’s coauthor, Dr. Alex More, is a research professor at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, as well as a researcher at Harvard University and an associate professor in the School of Health Sciences at Long Island University in New York. More explained that in 2012, three of his colleagues (Paul Mayewski (CCI), Michael McCormick (Harvard), and Dietmar Wagenbach (Heidelberg)) wanted to extract an ice core in Europe, instead of the typical polar locations, as the site is closer to impacts from human civilization. Greenland traps signals from a mix of North American regions and Antarctica traps signals from a mix of continents as well –– but the Alps provide a unique look into the history of the Mediterranean region.
Enter the Colle Gnifetti Glacier. “The glacier has been studied for many years because it’s a low accumulation glacier which gives a very clear, particularly high-quality ice for this type of study,” said More. The 72-meter ice core –– the deepest core ever to be dug out of the European Alps –– was extracted in 2013. “This was the first time that researchers from history, climate science, archaeology, volcanology, public health and multiple other disciplines came together for a project like this: from grant-writing to publication,” More said.
Clifford took charge of the lab work and data analysis. Normally, ice cores are melted for analysis by a mass spectrometer, the instrument used to determine the elemental signature of a sample. “Imagine spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, to get tens of meters of ice from the remotest places of the world… and then melting the entire thing.” More added: “We are losing a record of climate change because of climate change, so it’s crazy that we would destroy that ice.” Therefore, the team opted to find a better way to collect their data without melting the ice core.
Clifford’s team is the first to use a non-destructive laser method to sublimate microscopic circles of ice from a core. More explained that the laser moves slowly over the ice inside a vacuum to create a 10-micrometer groove in the core. An argon gas carrier then transfers the sublimated gas from the core to the mass spectrometer where it is analyzed in real time. The core remains intact and the glacier’s record can be preserved forever in a specialized refrigerated depository, even when the actual glacier itself ceases to exist.
While this project is the first to use laser technology for ice core analysis, it has previously been used for lake sediment cores and for archaeological purposes, More explained. Artifacts like ancient coins are precious, and a laser helps determine composition without damaging the structure.
The new laser provides an ultra-high-resolution analysis of glacial ice. More calls it the “gold standard” because it has already produced eight million data points, which is unmatched in their field. “The max data collected for one year is 1,100 data points,” Clifford told GlacierHub. This means they are able reconstruct past atmospheric conditions in much more detail, on subannual to storm-scale event time frames. By contrast, the quality of data obtained by the traditional method of melting ice is coarse and does not provide continuous detail. Using the laser, the researchers created the longest and most accurate record of Saharan dust transport to the European Alps. It spans the past 2,000 years.
Ice core extraction on the Colle Gnifetti Glacier and the laser ablation method: courtesy of Alex More, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine.
“It took four of us to put the record together and we all lasered over two years,” Clifford said. Lasering was an entirely new methodology that had to be calibrated very carefully, and the laser proceeds slowly, in 100-micrometer increments. “We can only measure the concentration of a few chemical elements at a time, so we often laser the same ice multiple times in order to measure the concentration of different elements. Each element is a piece of the puzzle in understanding climate change, pollution and the human impact on the planet,” More said.
“A calcium spike alongside an iron spike indicates dust,” said More, referring to the mass spectrometer readings. Then, depending which elements occurred alongside those dust spikes, the researchers could identify how different behaviors in atmospheric circulation deposited the Saharan dust in the Alps.
Some elemental signatures indicated a marine origin. “If they are not present, the air probably took a more direct route across Europe into the Alps,” explained More. Clifford pulled all the elemental data together and found that dust was more likely to be picked up by winds when conditions were dry over the African Sahel, or more arid over the Sahara, or when there was high sea level pressure over the Mediterranean. Periods of drought are expected to become more severe with climate change, so the study predicts an intensification of Saharan dust storms.
Saharan dust is rich in iron, and when iron mixes with oxygen, it rapidly oxidizes and gives off a distinctive red hue. Dust storms have long been observed by NASA satellites, and was a rare enough phenomenon that they were written about in European historical records, referred to as blood-rain. More, McCormick and their team combed through thousands of historical records to match what they read in the ice with what people wrote about their experiences of these events. This level of detail is only possible thanks to the quality of the laser and historical data combined.
Saharan dust events in Europe happen 43 times a year on average, on a scale of two to eight days. But More says “these dust storms sometimes occur and people in Europe don’t even notice… They’ll just say ‘oh it’s a hazy day today.’” The study indicates that dust storms are becoming more intense as climate change results in dryer conditions over north Africa. With more drought, stronger winds will have more dust to lift into the atmosphere, carrying more particles to human populations, an intensification already being seen in North Africa.
A NASA article describes how trade winds carry Saharan dust across Western Africa toward the Gulf of Guinea, forming the Harmattan Haze (named after the dusty easterly trade winds) which in Twi means “tears your breath apart.” Susanne Bauer of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies found that “air pollution in Africa likely caused the premature deaths of about 780,000 people in 2016, more than the number killed by HIV/AIDS,” and 70 percent of these deaths were attributable to dust. “Air pollution is the greatest silent killer,” affirmed More.
In the record, Clifford found that there has already been a significant increase in dust transport over the past century. Climate data show that the conditions she found necessary to fuel dust events will become more severe in the future with climate change. The team predicts that the increase in Saharan dust transfer will worsen air quality and pose a threat to human health, while increased deposits on glaciers will speed up melting and exacerbate the effects of climate change on nature and society.
Italian officials released last month images showing about 250 cubic meters of ice that were poised to break off of Planpincieux Glacier, which lies on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps and the highest in Europe west of the Caucasus Mountains.
The glacier stretches 2.5 kilometers along Mont Blanc’s southern slope and covers an area a little over a square kilometer.
The images were released just as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in its most resent report that the world’s oceans and cryosphere are already being radically altered by a warming world.
Carolina Adler, the executive director of the Mountain Research Initiative, is a lead author on the report.
“In this report we present key evidence on observed and projected trends in warming and how these trigger physical responses in the ocean and cryosphere,” Adler said. “These physical responses also lead to impacts on both people and ecosystems that are evident today, and are projected to increase into the future. However, despite these significant observed and projected changes, there is still an opportunity to reduce the risk of large impacts and ensure adaptation is more effective through emissions reduction. In essence, we highlight the benefits of ambitious and effective adaptation.”
Experts have warned that a massive glacier on the Italian side of Mont Blanc is melting at an accelerated rate and is close to collapse. pic.twitter.com/4J4mxSgyw9
Further illustrating the decline of ice mass on Mont Blanc, the University of Dundee released last week a comparison of aerial images of the peak taken a century apart. Swiss pilot and photographer Walter Mittelholzer flew over the same landscape in a biplane in 1919.
University of Dundee’s Kieran Baxter described flying over Mont Blanc to capture the comparison photo.
“The scale of the ice loss was immediately evident as we reached altitude, but it was only by comparing the images side-by-side that the last 100 years of change were made visible,” he said. “It was both a breathtaking and heartbreaking experience, particularly knowing that the melt has accelerated massively in the last few decades.”
From Geomorphology: “Ahora Gorge is a 400 m deep canyon located along the North Eastern flank of Mt. Ararat (Turkey), a compound volcanic complex covered by an ice cap. In the past, several diarists and scientific authors reported a calamitous event on July 2, 1840, when a landslide triggered by a volcanic eruption and/or an earthquake obliterated several villages located at the foot of the volcano. The reasons and effects of this Ahora Gorge Catastrophe (AGC) event have been obscure and ambiguous. To reappraise the 1840 catastrophe and the geomorphic evolution of the Ahora Gorge, we used high-resolution satellite images, remote sensing thermal data supplemented by observations collected during two field surveys.”
Albedo Effect in the Swiss Alps
From The Cryosphere: “Albedo feedback is an important driver of glacier melt over bare-ice surfaces. Light-absorbing impurities strongly enhance glacier melt rates but their abundance, composition and variations in space and time are subject to considerable uncertainties and ongoing scientific debates. In this study, we assess the temporal evolution of shortwave broadband albedo derived from 15 end-of-summer Landsat scenes for the bare-ice areas of 39 large glaciers in the western and southern Swiss Alps. […] Although a darkening of glacier ice was found to be present over only a limited region, we emphasize that due to the recent and projected growth of bare-ice areas and prolongation of the ablation season in the region, the albedo feedback will considerably enhance the rate of glacier mass loss in the Swiss Alps in the near future.”
Glacier Meltwater Impacts in Greenland
From Marine Ecology Progress Series: “Arctic benthic ecosystems are expected to experience strong modifications in the dynamics of primary producers and/or benthic-pelagic coupling under climate change. However, lack of knowledge about the influence of physical constraints (e.g. ice-melting associated gradients) on organic matter sources, quality, and transfers in systems such as fjords can impede predictions of the evolution of benthic-pelagic coupling in response to global warming. Here, sources and quality of particulate organic matter (POM) and sedimentary organic matter (SOM) were characterized along an inner-outer gradient in a High Arctic fjord (Young Sound, NE Greenland) exposed to extreme seasonal and physical constraints (ice-melting associated gradients). The influence of the seasonal variability of food sources on 2 dominant filter-feeding bivalves (Astarte moerchi and Mya truncata) was also investigated. Results revealed the critical impact of long sea ice/snow cover conditions prevailing in Young Sound corresponding to a period of extremely poor and degraded POM and SOM.”
The canton of Valais in Switzerland features ten of the 12 highest summits in the Alps. Alpine photographer Fiona Bunn’s 2019 calendar includes many of these 4,000-meter peaks found in Valais. Her images, all captured this past year, include the largest glacier in the Alps. The Aletsch is situated in the Bernese Alps and is 23 kilometers long.
Fifty kilometers south, is the Grenz glacier, which flows between the Monte Rosa and Lyskamm mountains of the Pennine Alps.
Bunn recently reflected on changing mountain landscapes in a guest post to GlacierHub: “My hope is that new John Muirs and Ansel Adams will arise, who encourage aesthetic appreciation and conservation of these sacred places. We may not be able to reverse a climate catastrophe, but we can be aware of those documenting change and supportive of the indigenous communities with creative solutions and investment.”
There is a special discount of 10 percent for GlacierHub readers. The alpine calendar is printed on premium photo paper, size 30 x 20 cms (A4). Price £9.99 P&P UK £5, ROW £7. To receive the special discount order via firstname.lastname@example.org. Payment either by Paypal or invoicing via direct transfer or check. All images copyright Fi Photos.
Fiona Bunn is a British and Swiss alpine photographer. For more of Fiona Bunn’s work, visit her website at www.fiphotos.org.
A recent study on the Borgne d’Arolla, a glacier-fed stream in the Swiss Alps, shows that there is less biodiversity among macroinvertebrates than expected in the summer and higher biodiversity than expected in the winter. Chrystelle Gabbud, a geologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and her associates, found that the rates of streambed disturbance in the Borgne d’Arolla were also much more frequent than normal observations of disturbance in glacial rivers, even during times of peak discharge. The team’s results were published in September in Science of the Total Environment and attribute the above biodiversity inversion phenomenon to the increased frequency of flushing events.
Why is it that glacier-fed rivers in the Alps are experiencing even more flushing events? Evidence points toward the impacts of global climate change, as rising temperatures influence increased glacial melting and sediment production during the summer months, which in turn means that flushing must be facilitated more often.
Summertime runoff in glacier-fed Alpine rivers is exceptionally useful for supplying water for hydroelectric power production. The flow of water is abstracted at water intakes, which hold back both water and sediment, functioning similarly to dams but on a smaller scale. Intakes also have a relatively low threshold for how much sediment can accumulate before they must be flushed. This means that in basins with high erosion, namely glaciated basins, this flushing happens more frequently. In the summer months, when glacial melt is at its peak, flushing of water intakes can occur up to several times a day. Flushing disrupts the streambed, increases water turbidity, contributes to river aggradation, and negatively affects the macroinvertebrate community both in abundance and biodiversity.
Gabbud and fellow researchers collected samples of macroinvertebrates (animals that do not have a backbone but that are large enough to be seen with the naked eye, such as crustaceans, worms and aquatic insects) at several locations over the course of two years (2016 and 2017) to determine the impacts of flushing water intakes on species biodiversity and abundance. The surrounding tributaries served as controls for the Borgne. The researchers’ findings effectively contradicted the normal expectations for seasonal biodiversity changes.
Normal biodiversity expectations anticipate that both species richness and abundance should be higher during the summer months, from June to September, which also correspond to the highest water temperatures. However, Gabbud and her team found that biodiversity of macroinvertebrate populations in the Borgne d’Arolla during winter months (and coldest water temperatures) was comparable to the expected levels for the surrounding tributaries during the spring and summer. The Borgne was found to be mostly devoid of life in the summer months, a result which the researchers primarily attribute to the high frequency of flushings.
The team also compared observations in 2016 to those in 2017. Variations in flushing frequency and duration between the two years led Gabbud and her associates to two determinations. One, that more flushing had a direct negative impact on the presence of macroinvertebrate biodiversity and abundance. Two, that flushings with shorter duration also correlated with higher rates of streambed disturbance.
In addition, they found that as the frequency of flushing decreased, macroinvertebrate populations started to return. Outside of the summer months, flushing happens much less frequently. In a four-day period between flushes, biodiversity was almost able to reach pre-disturbance levels.
The researchers’ observations led them to recommend that the frequency of flushing at the water intakes be decreased and the duration of flushing be increased. They stipulate that higher magnitude flushings, resulting from taking too much time between events, could also have negative impacts. Thus, this situation creates a tension between maintaining hydropower and maintaining biodiversity, a major policy issue.
Currently, Switzerland has a single set of regulations regarding mitigating impacts and restoring ecological areas being used for hydropower generation. There are provisions related to sediment management; however, guidance provided by the Swiss National Government does not mention water intakes by name, instead only addressing dams and maintaining sedimentconnection.
Seeing as water intakes govern over 50 percent “of hydropower impacted rivers by basin area” in the Swiss Alps, Gabbud and her team emphasize that future regulations must incorporate both sedimentmanagement and flow management.
You might have heard from your Italian friend complaining about the scorching heat in Europe this past summer. But how did the glaciers react? In the Ötztal region of the Italian Alps, an antique bicycle showed up after Rotmoosferner Glacier melted at 3,000 meters. Scientists estimate that there has been an accelerating trend of glacier retreat in the region where the glacier is located. Where did the bicycle come from? It might be related to the vigorous smuggling business between the Austrian and Italian border after World War II.
This Photo Friday, view images of Rotmoosferner Glacier’s retreat and the surprise find of the antique bicycle.
As another scorching summer in the Northern Hemisphere comes to an end, alpine hikers are preparing for an unfamiliar tourism restraint on Mont Blanc, the Alp’s highest peak, beginning next climbing season. The mountain, which straddles France and Italy, faces a cap on climbing issued by the French government. This new policy intends to permanently limit the number of mountaineers ascending the 4,810-meter summit from the Royal Route, Mont Blanc’s busiest climbing route which begins in France.
As reported by The Telegraph, the Royal Route is currently used by three-fourths of the adventure seekers who attempt to reach the peak each year. Starting next summer, the French government will half the number of climbers, allowing only 214 climbers per day. This decision was made after a surge of adventure seekers, some ill-prepared for the alpine challenge, resulted in sixteen deaths this past summer. The deaths were largely caused by avalanches and rockfalls during the final ascent, with such hazards likely to increase under the current global warming trajectory.
Mont Blanc, with its magnificent glacial sceneries and relatively climbable, well-marked trail, has become the center of modern alpine tourism since the first ascent of the mountain in 1786. Today it remains one of the most popular climbs in the world, with thousands of tourists traversing its trails and visiting its campgrounds each year. But among landscapes, alpine and glacier environments are increasingly fragile under changing climates. Mont Blanc is not an exception, with the effects of climate change progressively more noticeable.
“When I repeated climbs [in the Alps] after more than a decade, these changes were very clear,” Arnaud Temme, a geographer at Kansas State University and an experienced climber, shared with GlacierHub. “It is sad when beautiful bright ice is replaced by wide expanses of rock and rubble.”
One of the most popular attractions on Mont Blanc, the glacier Mer de Glace, sits on the northern slope of the massif. Luc Moreau, a glaciologist, recently told The Guardian that the glacier “is now melting at the rate of around 40 meters a year and has lost 80m in depth over the last 20 years alone.” A visible consequence of the retreating Mer de Glace snout is that 100m of ladders have been fixed against newly exposed vertical rock walls for hikers to climb down the glacier.
As a seasoned climber, Temme talked to GlacierHub about the impact of the changes he has witnessed on the mountain. “I’ve climbed in the European Alps for decades, and there is no doubt that climbing and high hiking routes are getting more dangerous,” he said. “I’ve been in tight spots several times due to glacial retreat or permafrost degradation, and have experienced declines in the quality of routes much more often.” He added that it takes more energy and attention as a climber to cross fields of loose rock than to cross a glacier.
According to Temme’s research and his own experiences of “getting into trouble” on the mountain, the conclusion is clear that conditions are becoming riskier.
“Since the 1990s, guidebook authors and their informants have started describing conditions that are more dangerous for climbers. Increased levels of rockfall were the main culprit— directly linked to climate change and permafrost retreat. Many routes are no longer even described in guidebooks, to prevent climbers from risking their lives on them,” he said.
It is indisputable that the rapid glacial melting and frozen ground thawing are causing a shrinkage of the snowy landscapes. In alpine areas, glacial retreat is always accompanied by more rock exposure. As the stability of the glacier is reduced as it melts, the chance of rocks falling and posing deadly threats to climbers increases. Between 2007 and 2017, more than 570 rockfalls occurred on the Mont Blanc massif, with the number of people killed increasing each year.
Given these risks, the future of alpine tourism looks bleak. Temme thinks glaciers will continue their retreat to higher altitudes. “Glacial tourism in some lower locations will become impossible, and it will become more expensive in others. Alpine climbs involving glaciers will have to be adapted, rerouted and, in some cases, abandoned like others already have,” he said.
Raoul Kaenzig, a climate researcher from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, told GlacierHub, “Mountains are spaces of freedom and should remain so as much as possible. I would focus on the prevention and the education of the tourists instead of prohibiting access by law. Restrictions measures should be kept only for extreme cases, like Mont Blanc.”
The fragile dynamics at Mont Blanc are also at work in other mountain ranges, Temme warned. For example, the Olympic Mountains in the U.S. state of Washington and the Southern Alps in New Zealand, both popular with climbers, have a great deal of glacier ice and are experiencing substantial climate change. As the planet warms, climbers to the world’s highest peaks will have to adapt to new mountain landscapes and the rising risks associated with glacier retreat.
From Bloomberg: “This summer’s exceptionally hot weather has seen the south peak of Kebnekaise lose the crown as Sweden’s highest point… The south peak measured 2,097 meters (6,879 feet) above sea level on July 31, down from 2,101 meters on July 2, according to data from the Tarfala research station. The north peak is 2,096.8 meters high, and the research station estimates that it overtook the south peak as Sweden’s highest point on Aug. 1 as the melting has continued.”
Find out more about glacier melting on Sweden’s highest mountain here.
Melting of Maliy Aktru Glacier Reveals Primary Ecological Succession
In Wiley’s Journal for Ecology and Evolution: “Plants, microorganisms (bacteria and fungi), and soil elements along a chronosequence in the first 600m of the Maliy Aktru glacier’s forefront (Altai Mountains, Russia) were surveyed… Plant succession shows clear signs of changes along the incremental distance from the glacier front. The development of biological communities and the variation in geochemical parameters represent an irrefutable proof that climate change is altering soils that have been long covered by ice.”
Read more about glacier retreat in the Altai Mountains here.
Anthropogenic Influence on Primary Succession in Alps
From the 6th Symposium for Research in Protected Areas: “Glacier forelands are ideal ecosystems to study community assembly processes… This study focuses on possible anthropogenic influences on these primary successions. Floristic data of three glacier forelands show that anthropogenic influences in form of (i) grazing sheep and (ii) hiking trails are creating patterns, visible in the floristic community composition and in change of species numbers. (iii) Additionally, it was found that the special protected area ‘Inneres Untersulzbachtal,’ where grazing has been absent for decades didn’t show any of these patterns, underlining the importance of process-protection in glacier forelands, as one of the last truly wild ecosystems in central Europe.”
Discover the anthropogenic influences on primary successions in glacier forelands here.
Do you prefer going to the beach or the mountains? This simple icebreaker aims to provide insight into one’s personality or interests. For mountain lovers, it’s a question that may also evoke a dramatic landscape with snow-capped peaks reminiscent of those found on the Instagram page of National Geographic Adventure, for example, where mountaineers are captured undertaking challenges that test the limits of human capability.
What is critical but often overlooked are the high-altitude shelters that protect adventurers and tourists on their treks. Hikers and climbers today typically rely on tents and other camping gear, but earlier generations sought shelter in more permanent structures or huts. A recent study by architectural historians Roberto Dini and Stefano Girodo explores how the design and construction of huts in the Western Alps in the late eighteenth through nineteenth century was a milestone in the exploration of the Alps. The construction of shelters offering overnight accommodations made it possible for explorers to undertake wide-ranging scientific explorations in the Alps for the first time. Unlike existing housing models, these huts were usually simple—carved into rock surfaces or leaning against them, providing the minimum needs for protection against what explorers saw as a hostile and frightening alpine environment.
Prior to the construction of these huts, mountains represented “an insurmountable barrier to discovering areas at higher altitudes,” according to the study. The researchers state that such shelters “in the most inhospitable areas of Europe” represent the “progressive transformation of the alpine region from sharp construct into an outpost of scientific learning, the ‘playground’ of mountaineers.”
The architectural structure of these first shelters present another dichotomy. The huts represented a safe space free from the harsh environment outside, a place where one could recharge before persevering the next day. And not only did the huts provide shelter, but they also gave visitors a psychological comfort with a brief chance to withdraw from the otherwise extreme non-human terrain.
Not mentioned in the article but interesting to note is the historical context surrounding the establishment of these shelters. When first constructed in France and Switzerland during the late 1700s, European high society was in the later periods of the Age of Enlightenment. A corresponding movement during the previous century was the Scientific Revolution, an era when the concept of modern science emerged with revolutions in scientific fields including mathematics, astronomy, physics, biology and chemistry. It appears logical that the intellectual heritage from the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment was under the same impulse that led to the expansion of studying astronomy in these remote regions. Additionally, it raises questions about who constructed these structures and the political dynamics that might have impacted the desire to expand into these regions. While, the Dini and Girodo study doesn’t address these questions, it sets the stage for further research to explore how the political and social perspectives influenced the design and use of alpine huts.
During the 1800s and 1900s, researchers and explorers could rely on the haven of shelters to plan more extended expeditions. These huts sparked curiosity among Enlightenment-induced scholars to study the not-well-understood glaciers and alpine landscape previously unattainable. But as a result, the introduction of shelters and exploration also led to an increased human intervention in the European Alps. According to the study, a consequence was the systematic physical alteration of the high-altitude region.
For scholars interested in the intersection between humans and the environment (and breaking the sharp dichotomy between the two), the authors indicate that high-altitude areas are “an ideal setting for testing a qualitative conciliation of the natural environment and human intervention.” In other words, alpine huts can be of interest to people not even working in mountain areas since they offer such a contrast between the natural environment and human interventions.
In recent decades, huts have even transformed from the historically crude and limited models to more luxurious structures that experiment with style and design. With the primary need for overnight shelter established, the building has become increasingly conceived as a place of short-term stay (whether overnight or a few nights) and a location for consumption of food and pleasure.
In the last twenty years, designers such as the ones behind the Monte Rosa Hut in Switzerland have responded to the surging interest in environmental questions and sustainability by incorporating energy-saving technology and rational resource management for isolated alpine refuges among glacierized terrains. Although still primarily serving as short-term housing and as protection against the elements, these newer shelters seek to enhance the outdoor experience for humans with interior designs that feature large windows and open floor plans. Earlier huts lacked windows, and this change reflects not only our improved technology and better heating but also our cultural shifts. Early on, humans perceived mountains as so hostile that they wanted to withdraw from them. Now, the Alps are a place of interest for people to explore and experience first-hand.
Despite the transformation of alpine shelters from simple design to luxurious spaces, two primary points remain unchanged throughout the last three centuries. First, visitors are still temporary. Whether they enter for a few hours or a couple of days, the structures reflect the come-and-go nature of tourism. Second, the reasons behind individuals occupying these shelters remain tied to the luxurious sphere of free time and pleasure. Certainly, the professional lens of Enlightenment-inspired scientific endeavors or today’s mountaineering expeditions have transformed the leisure activity into a professional occupation.
On the whole, the inhabitants of these shelters remain an elite group of predominantly white male individuals who continue to explore the heights of the world’s tallest mountains. The construction of alpine huts is a part of the history of white male privilege. But as these shelters transform from an image of stark refuge to more sustainable designs that celebrate (and market from) the surrounding environment, perhaps alpine shelters too may become more welcoming of a diverse team of scientists and explorers in glacierized environments.
Anomalous Stable Glaciers in the Karakoram Mountains
From Climate Dynamics: “Glaciers over the central Himalaya have retreated at particularly rapid rates in recent decades, while glacier mass in the Karakoram appears stable. To address the meteorological factors associated with this contrast, 36 years of Climate Forecast System Reanalyses (CFSR) are dynamically downscaled from 1979 to 2015 with the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model over High Mountain Asia at convection permitting grid spacing (6.7 km). In all seasons, CFSR shows an anti-cyclonic warming trend over the majority of High Mountain Asia, but distinctive differences are observed between the central Himalaya and Karakoram in winter and summer.”
Read more about the climatic differences between the central Himalaya and Karakoram here.
Microbial Differences of Two Andean Lakes
From Aquatic Microbiology: “The limnological signatures of Laguna Negra and Lo Encañado, two oligotrophic Andean lakes which receive water from Eucharren Glacier and are exposed to the same climatic scenario, were driven by the characteristics of the corresponding sub-watersheds. The abundance of phototrophic bacteria is a significant metabolic difference between the microbial communities of the lakes which is not correlated to the Chla concentration.”
Read more about microbial differences of two Andean lakes here.
Carabid Beetles in Norway
From Norwegian Journal of Entomology: “Nine species of carabid beetles (Coleoptera, Carabidae) were pitfall-trapped during two years in an alpine glacier foreland of southern Norway. A two-year (biennial) life cycle was documented for Nebria nivalis (Paykull, 1790), N. rufescens (Ström, 1768), and Patrobus septentrionis Dejean, 1828. This was based on the simultaneous hibernation of larvae and adults. In P. septentrionis, both larvae and adults showed a considerable activity beneath snow. A limited larval material of Amara alpina (Paykull, 1790) and A. quenseli (Schönherr, 1806) from the snow-free period indicated larval hibernation. A. quenseli was, however, not synchronized with respect to developmental stages, and its life cycle was difficult to interpret.”
Read more about the ecology of carabid beetles in an alpine glacier foreland here.