Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron took the tram from the Alpine resort of Chamonix up to Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, to pay homage to the legendary massif and reflect on the toll climate change is exacting on its great glacier, the Mer de Glace. The President dined at Mont Blanc’s base with climate scientists; peered from the mountain’s northern slopes down upon the jagged crags of ice doppling the immense—albeit shrinking—valley glacier; and walked in blue tunnels, which course the Mer de Glace’s innards.
The glacier has shrunk more than 200 feet in depth (65 meters) and almost 1,000 feet in length (300 meters) since 1996. “What we see with this glacier melting is irrefutable evidence of global warming,” Macron said after visiting Mer de Glace.
The visit coincided with Macron’s announcement of numerous environmental policies aimed at combating the climate crisis. These ranged from the promise of the French government to stop purchasing single-use plastics in July, to the creation of a new agency—the French Office of Biodiversity—tasked with the stewardship of the country’s ecosystems.
More pertinent to Mont Blanc and the Mer de Glace was the announcement of a new nature preserve ringing the mountain and a raft of new rules on limiting the number of climbers that can access the summit of Europe’s highest peak. Around 30,000 people attempt to summit the almost 16,000 foot (4,800 meters) peak each year and leave it strewn with garbage.
Jean-Marc Peillex, the mayor of Saint Gervais—a town near Mont Blanc—sent Macron a letter last fall lamenting the polluted state of the mountain and the “oddballs” responsible for it. Last year a British Royal Marine veteran tried to summit Mont Blanc while carrying a rowing machine—a stunt intended to raise money for charity. The climb sapped his strength, however, so he descended without it, leaving the hulking exercise machine high on the mountain. Local authorities said they will have to use a helicopter to get it down.
“It is all well and good to worry about the Amazon rainforest, but to ignore what is happening on Mont Blanc and to allow this disrespect to continue is intolerable,” wrote Peillex.
These new policies and the visit to Mont Blanc are part of Macron’s larger effort to stake the second half of his term on climate and the environment. Some view the controversial President’s climate change combating ambitions at odds with his investment banking past and business friendly policies, but he thinks the two are compatible.
Speaking before scientists and members of the French Ministry of Ecology at Chamonix after his visit, he declared that the fight to curb climate change and protect biodiversity was “a fight for our own survival” but added that “we need to show that this strategy is compatible with economic progress because this is the strategy in which I believe.”
Fresh Water Supply in Slovenia Is Shrinking With Its Glaciers
A chapter in the book Water Resources Management in Balkan Countries, published online last month, contains a chapter on fresh water resources in Slovenia, which are shrinking partly due to the ablation of the country’s only two glaciers. From the abstract:
“Slovenia is characterized by an abundance of water in a great variety of forms…The once-extensive swamps and marshes have shrunk significantly due to water regulation, and climate change has also caused the two Slovenian glaciers on Mount Triglav and Mount Skuta to shrink drastically.”
In September, scientists who had spent years monitoring a massive glacier in northwestern Italy decided the opening of a new crevasse warranted the evacuation of nearby huts and roads. From Earther:
“This glacier is particularly vulnerable, Benjamin Orlove, the co-director of Columbia’s Climate and Society program and lead author on a landmark ice and oceans report, told Earther. That’s because it’s a hanging glacier left stuck to the wall of a steep valley. Another glacier used to support it from below, but that one shrank. Now, Planpincieux is left to fend for itself.”
Clues to Ice Man’s Travels Are in the Mosses He Carried
From the introduction of the study:
“When discovered in 1991 the mummified body of a man melting out of ice high in the Alps (3,210m above sea level) was a fully justified sensation worldwide. Nothing quite like it had been found previously. Soon nick-named “Ötzi” and superbly preserved though shriveled, the man had been well clothed and shod. There was a diverse set of gear including a copper headed axe, a full set of archery equipment and a fire making kit in a belly bag. Much about Ötzi is controversial but not when he had lived which was about 5,200 to 5,300 years ago, as a large set of radiocarbon dates testify conclusively.”
Fossils of mosses and liverworts from the ice man’s body and vicinity provide details of his final journey. Read the study here.
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.”
Interested in climbing Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak? You might have to get in line.
Starting next year, France will impose a daily cap of 214 climbers while climbing the “White Mountain” to limit overcrowding and lower chances of fatalities. Higher temperatures at higher altitudes have created a risky environment for climbers as thawing grounds increase the threat of rockfalls. At least 16 people have died so far this year.
“It’s a tough decision but a very good one, because Mont Blanc is a climb unlike any other. You have to be prepared,” Mayor Jean-Marc Peillex of Saint Gervais (the Alpine town where the most popular climbing route up the mountain begins) told AFP.
Many routes up the mountain traverse Mont Blanc’s glaciers. On the busy “Royal Route,” for example, travelers have to cross the glacier du Tacul on the Mont Blanc du Tacul mountain. The Mer de Glace, or “Sea of Ice,” is another significant glacier near the summit, which has also melted and shrunk due to higher temperatures caused by climate change.
The new limits were announced after a series of meetings over the weekend between local officials, France’s mountain police brigade, the French mountaineering federation, and guide associations. Police have begun requiring aspiring climbers to reserve one of the refuges on the route before letting them proceed.
In a bid to preserve ice cores and valuable climate information from some of the world’s most endangered glaciers, scientists are creating a global ice archive sanctuary in Antarctica. The Ice Memory project is being led by the Université Grenoble Alpes Foundation.
From Mont Blanc Massif’s Col du Dôme glacier to the Illimani glacier in Bolivia, over 400 ice cores have been retrieved to be preserved in the ice bunker.
To learn more about Ice Memory, see the video below from the Université Grenoble Alpes Foundation:
Edward Theodore Compton, usually referred to as E.T. Compton, was a German painter, illustrator and mountain climber who lived from 1849-1921. He is best known for his paintings and drawings of alpine scenery, many of which also contain glaciers.
Born in London, Compton’s family moved to Darmstadt, Germany, in 1867, for him to continue his education. He was also a skilled mountaineer, making 300 major ascents during his lifetime, mostly within Europe. For example, he made the first documented ascents of 27 mountains, including Torre di Brenta in the Italian Alps and Grossglockner in Austria, which he climbed at the age of 70!
Apart from oil and watercolor paintings, Compton also produced numerous illustrations of alpine scenery. Many of his works help to document the days of early alpinism, showing what mountains and glaciers looked like in the past.
Glaciers contain valuable information about past environments on Earth within the layers of ice that accumulate over hundreds or thousands of years. However, alpine glaciers have lost 50 percent of their mass since 1850, and projections suggest that glaciers below 3500m will not exist by 2100. Concerns about the loss of this valuable resource motivated Jérôme Chappellaz, a senior scientist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), and an international team of glaciologists, to create the world’s first archive of ice cores from different parts of the world.
Ice cores are cylindrical sections of ice sheets or glaciers collected by vertical drilling. Chemical components within different layers of ice in glaciers, such as gases, heavy metals, chemical isotopes (forms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei) and acids, allow scientists to study past atmospheric composition and to draw inferences on environmental variables such as temperature changes and sea levels. Cores will be extracted between now and 2020, after which they will be transported for storage to Concordia Station in Antarctica, a joint French-Italian base located on the Antarctic Plateau. Antarctica serves as a natural freezer, allowing the cores to be stored 10 meters below the surface at temperatures of -54°C. International management of the archive, which will be large enough to contain cores from up to 20 glaciers, will be facilitated by the lack of territorial disputes in Antarctica.
The first cores that will go into the archive were collected in summer 2016 between August 16th and 27th. Over this time period, two teams of French, Italian and Russian researchers successfully collected three ice cores, each 130 meters long and 92 millimeters in diameter, from France’s Col du Dôme glacier (4300m above sea level) on Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. Drilling was carried out within drilling tents at nighttime because daytime temperatures were too high. The cores were then cut into one meter sections for storage and transportation purposes.
“The cores are currently stored in our commercial freezers at Grenoble, France, waiting for the long term storage cave at Concordia Station in Antarctica to be built,” Chappellaz told GlacierHub. “One of the three cores will be used during the coming two years to produce reference records of all tracers (chemical components of ice that reveal information about the natural environment) that can be measured with today’s technologies.”
The next drilling for the archive will take place in May 2017 at Illimani glacier in the Bolivian Andes (6300m above sea level). As with the drilling at Col du Dôme glacier, the project will be overseen by Patrick Ginot, a research engineer at the Laboratory of Glaciology and Environmental Geophysics (LGGE) in Grenoble. The collection of ice cores has relied on intense international collaboration, and Ginot will be working with glaciologists from Bolivia to extract the cores.
Illimani is one of the few Latin American glaciers that contains information stretching back to the last glacial maximum around 20,000 years ago. Although ice cores collected from the Arctic and Antarctica, such as those from Dome C, provide information stretching back to that period, the value of the cores lies in the information they are able to provide about specific regions. For example, ice cores from France’s Col du Dôme glacier can provide information about European industrial emissions, while ice cores from Bolivia’s Illimani glacier could offer insight into the history of biomass burning in the Amazon basin.
Glaciers will be selected based on a number of criteria, with priority given to glaciers that contain large amounts of information about the regions from which they are collected, that are in significant danger of melting, and for which relevant expertise is available. Col du Dôme glacier was chosen by Chappellaz and his team as the first site because it met this criteria, while the proximity of the site to the CNRS laboratory allowed the starting budget to cover the logistics of the project.
Gaining funding has been one of the main obstacles to the creation of the archive, according to Chappellaz. “As we are not the scientists who are going to perform new science on the heritage ice cores, the usual funding agencies for science are not really interested by the project. Therefore, we had to build it entirely around donations,” he explained. Nevertheless, the project is gaining ground, with future plans to extract ice cores from Colle Gnifetti glacier at the Italian-Swiss border, Mera glacier in Nepal, the Huascaran glacier in Peru, and Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus Mountains in Russia. More information about current and future plans can be found here.
Scientists participating in these plans to extract cores from these regions hope to be able to preserve a valuable resource that will be the property of the international community. They are in discussions with UNESCO and the United Nations Environment Programme to coordinate the creation of a political and scientific governing body to manage the ice core archive.
Further uses for these ice cores will depend on the development of scientific ideas and technology, which may allow new aspects of data within the ice to be analyzed. However, as Chappellaz suggested, “What we can already indicate is that studies of the biological content in the ice, such as bacteria and viruses, will probably become an important area for ice core science in the future, with possible applications in medical research.” As such, efforts to preserve rapidly disappearing resources not only enhance our understanding of Earth, but could also allow for new uses yet to be discovered.
The Cosmo Jazz Festival in Chamonix, France mixes stunning glacial and mountain views of the Alps with live jazz performances. The concert series, which ran this year from July 23 until July 31st, sets each day’s concert at a new, makeshift stage in open air high up in Chamonix. Chamonix is a small town and resort area at the base of Mont Blanc, the highest summit in the Alps.
Check out these photos of this year’s festival’s performances, framed by Mont Blanc’s iconic glacial peaks. Christophe Boillon holds all of the image rights for the festival photos shown below. You can find more of his photography on Flickr here.
For the last fifteen years, British photographer Dan Holdsworth has been blending nature, science, and technology into large-scale photographs and digital art. Much of his work focuses on glacial landscapes.
Holdsworth’s major solo exhibition, “Dan Holdsworth: A Future Archaeology,” is currently premiering at the Scheublein + Bak Gallery in Zurich as part of his Continuous Topography series through September 2. Using high-end 3D imaging software ordinarily only used in scientific or military capacities, Holdsworth renders glacial landscapes in the Alps with extraordinary, unprecedented 3D precision.
Holdsworth spoke with GlacierHub about his early childhood influences, “the sublime,” and his efforts to capture Icelandic glaciers.
GlacierHub: What fieldwork did you conduct to create the images featured in this exhibit?
Dan Holdsworth: For the last three years, I’ve been working with a PhD researcher named Mark Allen from Northumbria University in Newcastle [in the United Kingdom]. The first fieldwork we undertook together, three years ago now, was in the Mont Blanc massif, working on glaciers around Mont Blanc, on both the French and Italian sides. I spent initially two months there, surveying both terrestrially, with drones and by a helicopter using GPS recordings on the ground and data sampling, [and using] a huge sampling of photography surveying–usually several hundred photographs for each location.
GH: What drew you to glaciers as a subject?
DH: My interest in landscape and interest in technology and human impacts on our environment. I’ve always been drawn to areas that have a tension, an edge. In my very early work, it was focused on city edges, where you see this view of humanity and nature kind of hitting each other. For me, obviously glacial landscapes have a similar aspect in terms of this edge of the human traction on glaciers. The images of glaciers are transmitted all around the globe as a symbol of climate change.
In 2000, I went to Iceland for the first time, and I visited glacial landscapes in Iceland. In 2001, I started photographing a glacier called Solheimajökull, which was predominately, at that time, black, with volcanic debris melting out from the glacier. It appeared to have a very interesting tension with the industrial. This object is a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution.
I went back every year for almost ten years and photographed the same location, not to document it exactly that precisely, but to more explore my relationship with it and my responses as it was changing and melting. I then subsequently made prints, which I made digital inversions of. When I made the photographs, I would always make them on a completely white-out day, and you’d see this black object in this white space. In the final work, I made this circular realization by inverting the photograph and restoring the glacier to white. The sky becomes the black of space, so you have this immediate planetary transformation in the image.
GH: Your art blends technology with nature and science very seamlessly. What inspired this connection in your work?
DH: My father was a physicist who studied in Bristol and then at the Max Planck Institute. He was a polymer physicist, and developed processes to metalize plastics. One of the companies he worked with was based in the States and he was developing coatings for space shuttles. So there were always these interesting sides of technology that I was being brought up with. Often you’d see these kinds of developments of technology, like a ghost of my dad’s work [like] some kind of metalized plastic in some food packaging, and back in the 1980s, you’d think, ‘There’s no way this is going to catch on.’ But everything is made with this stuff now, in terms of packaging, like CDs, laser storage, lots of things.
My mother is a ceramicist and a fanatical gardener. My father was also really into mountain walking and climbing, as well. So we always liked going to the middle of nowhere in nature, in Scotland mostly, sometimes Switzerland.
The area where I was born is a very industrial area – it’s a kind of industrial heartland in Britain. I was brought up on the edge of a natural park. So if you look one way, you’re looking across the park, across nature. If you look the other way, it’s just pure industry. I was always brought up with all these tensions and kinds of relationships throughout both my family and the landscapes around me. It was always something that was always very, very present. I was always drawn to exploring these ideas through a kind of landscape.
GH: How would you describe the relationship of your work to climate change?
DH: My interest in [my] work is centrally dealing with perception, and obviously photography is key to this cybernetic extension of our visual perceptions. We’re communicating so much more to each other almost using pure imagery, and I think in my work I’ve felt that we really need to deal with how we mediate the world through these cybernetic extensions through our photographic eyes. We need to deal with that while dealing with our relationship to nature. Our relationship to nature is always mediated by our relationship to technology. So we need to really understand our relationship to technology to understand our relationship to nature. My work is about trying to deal with that.
I’ve always had this feeling that the “sublime” – which is this feeling of this archaic or this “other” aspect of our human emotion, which is a kind of irrational response to a certain encounter in the world, and perhaps an encounter with nature…with technology, is fundamentally driven by our experiences of science. Science is broadening and deepening our understanding of the world, and it continually challenges our perception of the world. That cements itself and finds itself expressed through this emotion, this feeling of the sublime. [It] is either an archaic response, and …something that we have no use for, but is somehow still there, so we have this kind of irrational response, or we have this human response that is actually developing as science develops.
GH: How do you hope that your work is going to impact the human perception of climate change?
DH: I really concur with the artist Robert Irwin when he says that “Perception is political.” What he means by that is, I think, that at a base level we really need to fundamentally understand what defines our perceptual senses in order to organize our relationship to the world. With our new digitally mediated perceptual senses, this perhaps becomes more complex. We need to understand and feel comfortable with our newly developing perceptual capabilities in order to make the correct decisions about the way that we move forward with, just to give one example, issues around developments of future energy production..
GH: Could you briefly explain the concept behind “A Future Archaeology?”
DH: The idea of “A Future Archaeology” is this sense of both looking at the nature of the landscape and the nature of technology. It’s looking at the substructures of technologies, which are basically underpinning much of the virtual infrastructure that we’re interfacing with in our daily lives now, like, for example, Google Maps.
In a sense, “A Future Archeology” is exploring those materials in their raw form, in their data, in the models I’m working with. There’s also a sense of “A Future Archaeology” in the nature of this recording of geological formations over a period of time. It’s a digital archive of this particular moment. Of course, the materials of the digital are underpinned by the geological, so there’s a kind of interwoven history and trajectory [between the materials of the digital and the materials of the geological]. It’s very elemental, both in in its material and geological nature, in terms of the resources that underpin physically the technology we’re using and the machines we’re using.
There’s also an aspect of a digital archive. There are two depths throughout space: there’s a depth to the digital space and there’s a depth to the geological space, and they kind of mirror each other.
We’re obviously now documenting ourselves and are aware of the human nature of our own physical archive and material archive in terms of our sense of the emergence of this new era of the Anthropocene, where we see human activity defining it. It’s certainly a new geological epoch. It’s about all of those things.
Disputed territory on Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, raised buried tensions between Italy and France earlier this month after the mayor of Chamonix, in France, blocked off access to a dangerous glacier on what Italians claim as their own territory.
The Mayor, Eric Fournier, closed a gate at the entrance of the Giant Glacier at 3500 meters, saying the route beyond it was unsafe. For years the French and Italian sides have argued about access to the area, which the French consider too dangerous for climbers. The Italians, who installed the gate, say warning signs should be enough to discourage inexperienced climbers. Every year, 30,000 people attempt to climb the mountain and about 20 climbers died in 2014 alone.
“[The French] removed hazard signs that we had put in place after the massive influx of tourists in recent months,” Fabrizia Derriard, mayor of Courmayeur in Italy, told the Independent. “They also closed the gate, which makes it dangerous for climbers who now have to climb over a barrier to get to the other side.”
Both countries disagree about where France ends and Italy starts. France claims its territory extends to the start of the glacier while Italy claims French territory begins 300 meters away.
The Giant Glacier is not the only glacier that caught in the middle of territorial disputes. When Ötzi the Iceman, a mummified body from 3300 BCE, was found in a glacier in the Ötztal Alps between Italy and Austria, disputes about which country Ötzi should belong to arose. Though he was found by Austrian climbers, Ötzi was eventually placed in a museum in Italy.
On the border between India and Pakistan, the Siachen Glacier is in disputed territory. One year ago, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the glacier after the two countries exchanged fire over the glacier and took 20 civilian lives.
As dynamic landscape features that melt and shift, glaciers can create problems if governments have decided to make them serve to delimit borders. Glaciers also tend to be high in the mountains and can be difficult to access, so they are not always mapped with the precision that international agreements may require. The dispute over the three peaks of Mont Blanc has been going on for 150 years, in a region of the world that is well-mapped and that has strong international institutions. It thus serves as a reminder that other glacier regions may provoke international disagreements, starting with issues as small as the location of a gate.
Mont Blanc: fresh row over territory as France blocks glacier access
“A fresh row over borders has erupted between France and Italy on Mont Blanc – or Monte Bianco – after the mayor of Chamonix blocked access to a precarious glacier that the Italians claim is in their territory. Eric Fournier took the decision to close a gate – installed by the Italians – that gave access to Giant glacier, situated at an altitude of 3500m. They claim the route is unsafe.”
Glacier Girl is reinventing the eco-friendly aesthetic for the tumblr generation
“London teen Elizabeth Farrell is changing the way we look at environmental activism…. The 19-year-old invented the superhero pseudonym Glacier Girl and her project, Remember The Glaciers, as a way to speak to her peers about the dangers of global warming. What began as a high school art assignment has become a calling for Elizabeth, who was awarded a Gap Year Scholarship by Britain’s Royal Geographical Society last year to focus on the project full-time.”
Peruvian glacier shows significant meltdown from climate change
“The Incachiriasca glacier, located on the Vilcabamba mountain range in the Peruvian region of Cuzco, has retreated some 62 meters (203 feet) over the past eight years due to the effects of climate change, the head of the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary, Jose Nieto, told EFE.”