Photo Friday: Fi Bunn’s Alpine Images

This past year has been an exciting time for me as an alpine photographer. I managed to travel to southern Switzerland three times, combining trips with family and professional events in order to minimize my ecological footprint. I also brought along my new camera, a Nikon DS5600 with a 18-140mm Nikkor zoom lens. It continues to be a privilege to visit such an awesome place with mountains to climb, beautiful scenery to photograph, and great hospitality with the local mountain communities.

The Breithorn Traverse (4,164 meters) is part of the Monte Rosa massif, Pennine Alps, Valais, Switzerland. (Source: Fi Bunn)

Monte Rosa (4,634 meters) is located in the Pennine Alps, Valais, Switzerland and consists of two summits, Nordend (4,609 m) and Dufourspitze (4,634 m). (Source: Fi Bunn)

Even though I have visited many other places, it is these alpine communities that draw me back again and again. I love to see the mountains during different seasons, and that is partly why I’ve branched out from my favored black-and-white photography to shoot more color images. The results can be seen in my 2019 exhibitions.

The Ober Gabelhorn, Zinalrothorn, and Weisshorn are 3 of the 38 summits that rise over 4,000 meters in height in the Zermatt, Valais region of Switzerland. (Source: Fi Bunn)

I continue to investigate new scramble routes, meet amazing fellow “explorers,” and make new friends during my expeditions. I listen to stories from locals about the impact of climate change. This summer I heard more about the Zinal Glacier in the Pennine Alps, Valais. It is a 7-kilometer-long glacier, which, according to those who live close by, is shrinking at a rate of 30 meters per year.

Lyskamm Mountain (4,527 meters), also known as Silberbast, is situated between Switzerland and Italy. (Source: Fi Bunn)

Through my photography, I hope to encourage open and respectful debate about climate change. As the issue attracts more media attention, I was delighted and surprised to be invited to give three exhibitions in the first part of 2019. The exhibition spaces are big, enabling me to print large-format versions of my images. It has always been my hope and dream to give visitors a real immersive experience, and I can already see areas for developing more fully this sensory aspect. So this summer I will be traveling back to the Alps to research and develop ideas for the next stage in my photographic exploration of the Alps.

The Weisshorn (4,506 meters), also known as “the secret star” of the Swiss Alps, is situated between Anniviers and Zermatt in the canton of Valais. (Source: Fi Bunn)
The Breithorn Plateau forms the starting point for climbers ascending the 4,000 meter Valais Swiss alps of Breithorn, Castor, and Pollux. (Source: Fi Bunn)

Fi Bunn’s upcoming exhibitions take place May 11-18 at Victorinox, Bond Street, London and in mid-August through September at St. Margaret’s Heritage Centre, Quarry Street, Guildford, Surrey.

You can find find more of her photographs on her website, as well as following her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. She can be emailed at FiAlpinePhotos@gmail.com.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Photographing Transformation and Ethnographic Predicaments in Nepal’s Himalaya

Illustrating the Adventures of German Naturalist Alexander von Humboldt

Video of the Week: Can Blankets Protect Swiss Glaciers from Melting?

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Video of the Week: Can Blankets Protect Swiss Glaciers from Melting?

People in Switzerland are taking matters into their own hands, becoming creative with their efforts to combat climate change.

In a recent tweet from NBC Left Field, members of a community in the Swiss Alps are seen covering glaciers with ginormous white tarps. They hope the tarps will help reflect sunlight, which could reduce the amount of melting caused by rising temperatures.

The residents describe in the video their fear that the water they receive from the glaciers might soon disappear. Glaciers have long been a dependable water source for regions all over the world, but not anymore.

In honor of Earth Day, NBC Left Field tweeted a video depicting people covering glaciers with blankets.

[Click here to watch the full video on YouTube.]

A 2018 article in the Washington Post describes how a group of people living adjacent to Rhone Glacier haul tarps through the mountains each year prior to the start of summer. Rising temperatures, as well as a longer summer season, means glaciers are likely to face rapid melting in coming years.

But can blankets really help save the glaciers?

Although it isn’t the most comprehensive solution, it may actually work. Swiss glaciologist David Volken told NDTV that the blankets could reduce ice melt by as much as 70 percent. It’s just a temporary fix, though. Volken estimates that by the end of the century only about 10 percent of the ice volume will remain.

The blankets, however, appear to be slowing the pace of melting, giving communities some time to adapt and consider alternate sources of water.

Read More on GlacierHub:

North Cascade 2019 Winter Accumulation Assessment

The Dead of Mount Everest Are Seeing the Light of Day

Glaciers Account for More Sea Level Rise Than Previously Thought

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Roundup: Catastrophe on Mt. Ararat, Albedo Effect in the Alps, and Meltwater in Greenland

Reappraising the 1840 Ahora Gorge Catastrophe

Mt. Ararat is seen from the northeast in 2009. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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

The Oberaar glacier is seen from Oberaar, Bern, Switzerland in 2010. (Source: Simo Räsänen/Wikimedia Commons)

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

An iceberg floats in Franz Josef Fjord, Greenland (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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.”

Read More on GlacierHub: 

Rising Temperatures Threaten Biodiversity Along the Antarctic Peninsula

Mongolia’s Cashmere Goats Graze a Precarious Steppe

United Nations Steps for Building Functional Early Warning Systems

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Roundup: GLOF Risk Perception in Nepal, UAV’s in the Andes, and Swiss Avalanches

GLOF Risk Perception in Nepal Himalaya

Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) pose a significant, climate change-related risk to the Mt. Everest region of Nepal. Given the existence of this imminent threat to mountain communities, understanding how people perceive the risk of GLOFs, as well as what factors influence this perception, is crucial for development of local climate change adaptation policies. A recent study, published in Natural Hazards, finds that GLOF risk perception in Nepal is linked to a variety of socioeconomic and cultural factors.”

Read more about GLOF risk in Nepal here.

Overlooking a village and glacial river in the Khumbu valley, Mt. Everest region of Nepal (Source: Matt W/Flickr).

 

Drones in the Service of Sustainability: Tracking Soil Moisture in the Peruvian Andes

“Amid the tropical Andes of Peru lies the Cordillera Blanca mountains, home to more tropical glaciers than anywhere else on Earth. This range provides water to some 95 million people. Rising temperatures over the last several decades, however, mean its once abundant glaciers are vanishing rapidly. That’s impacting the water supply of downstream communities, which are becoming increasingly dependent on soil moisture.

In an innovative study published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment, researchers used drones to obtain high-resolution images of the valleys left behind as Cordillera Blanca’s glaciers recede. As the drones pass over these “proglacial valleys,” they can produce highly accurate maps of the soil moisture within the fields, rivers, wetlands, and meadows below.”

Read more about UAV’s for remote sensing here.

The researchers used a custom-built drone (Source: Oliver Wigmore)

 

Heavy Snowfall and the Threat of Avalanches in Switzerland

“In January, officials dropped a series of controlled explosives to set off avalanches on mountains near the Moiry Glacier in southern Switzerland due to an increased amount of snowfall during the month. Communities are directed to stay inside (or preferably go into a basement) while the avalanches are triggered and close all shutters. Controlled avalanches are intended to reduce the severity of an avalanche as well as collateral debris from an avalanche, making it safer for adventurers to romp around the backcountry. The use of explosives to mitigate avalanche risk is used throughout many mountain communities, especially when areas experience above average snowfall.”

Read more about the Swiss avalanches here.

Avalanche in Zinal, Switzerland (Source: WikiCommons/Camptocamp.org)

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2018: An Exceptional Year of Losses for Swiss Glaciers

In 2018, Swiss glaciers lost over 2.5 percent of their overall volume, reported the Swiss Academy of Sciences in a recent press release. This corresponds to 1.4 billion cubic meters of ice that melted from Switzerland’s glaciers in just one year.

Swiss glaciers: Findelen Glacier 2018 on GlacierHub
The Findelen Glacier, in the Monte Rosa region of southern Valais, Switzerland. Only glaciers at the highest altitudes (over 2000m) had snow thickness losses of less than one meter (Source: Matthias Huss/Swiss Academy of Sciences).

However, this year of exceptional melting actually began with a rather promising winter season. The 2017-2018 winter commenced earlier than expected in Switzerland, starting in the first days of November and continuing through December with reported snowfall above average levels. January also saw higher temperatures than normal, as well increased precipitation.

While snow depth below 1000m elevation was around half the expected average by January, snow above 2000m elevation was still twice the expected average in March, representing the highest snow levels seen in the past 20 years.

GlacierHub interviewed the author of the press release, Matthias Huss, who said, “After the winter measurements in April and May, we actually thought that this might be a good year for the glaciers at last.” Huss is also the leader of the Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network (GLAMOS) and a glaciologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Switzerland.

Swiss glaciers: rivers of glacial melt at Findelen Glacier 2018 on GlacierHub
On the Findelen Glacier, even above 3000m elevation, rivers of glacial melt flowed well into September (Source: Matthias Huss/Swiss Academy of Sciences).

However, both April and May were hot and dry, decreasing snow at altitude to relatively normal levels. Then, the months from April to September were characterized by drought conditions and high temperatures, making it the third-hottest and overall driest summer on record.

“This is probably the largest annual shrinkage since the mega-heatwave of 2003,” said Martin Beniston, an honorary professor and former director of the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, in an interview with GlacierHub.

Both Beniston and Huss told GlacierHub that, had it not been for this snow-rich winter, Switzerland’s glaciers would have faced even more extreme losses. Indeed, the above-average quantities of snow in the Alps during winter 2017-2018 helped offset some loss of ice this summer.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Mauri Pelto, a glaciologist at Nichols College and the director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project commented on the implications of 2018’s extreme melting. “The significance of a big year of melt followed by another is there will be no comparable rebound,” he said.

Swiss glaciers: Pizol Glacier in 2006 and 2018 reveals massive glacial retreat on GlacierHub
A comparison of the Pizol Glacier in 2006 to 2018, revealing massive glacial retreat and ice covered in debris (Source: Matthias Huss/Swiss Academy of Sciences).

Wilfried Haeberli, a glaciologist and professor emeritus at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, put this year’s loss in perspective. “Since the turn of the century the average loss rate of all glaciers in the Alps can be estimated at around 1-2 percent per year. The loss rate of 2018 is roughly twice this amount,” he noted in an interview with GlacierHub. Together in the last 10 years, Swiss glaciers have lost one-fifth of their volume, which is enough to cover the entirety of Switzerland with 25 cm of water

While certainly extreme, losing 2.5 percent of glacial volume in one year is not unprecedented. Years with observations of “extreme” glacier melt are becoming both more frequent and more severe. Huss recalled the years 2015 and 2017, when Swiss glaciers lost comparable amounts of ice, saying, “2018 was not absolutely exceptional, in terms of the last decade. And this is of course the actually worrying news.”

Pelto, Beniston, and Haeberli echoed similar sentiments, saying that the observed losses for Swiss glaciers were, “exceptional but not unusual,” and that 2018 was, “hardly a surprise,” but instead, “part of a long-term development, which is in agreement with robust results from model simulations about global warming and glacier vanishing,” respectively.   

On a global scale, glaciated areas in several other countries saw noticeably higher snowlines and rapid volume loss due to melting in 2018. Some notable examples of this widespread glacial retreat include: the Lowell Glacier in Yukon, Canada; the Taku Glacier in Alaska, U.S.; the Chubda, Angge, and Bailang Glaciers along the Bhutan-China border; and the Inostrantsev and Pavlova Glaciers in Novaya Zemlya, off the coast of northern Russia.

Swiss glaciers: Lake at the tongue of the Rhone Glacier on GlacierHub
The Rhone Glacier developed a lake at its tongue again in 2018, due to the exceptional melting (Source: Matthias Huss/Swiss Academy of Sciences).

“The fact that high snowlines and mass balance loss are affecting glaciers in every corner of the world indicates that this is not a regional change, but that global climate change is the driver,” said Pelto. 

Huss also pointed out the difficulty of deducing whether extreme conditions in the past few years is due to weather variability, or whether we are to experience these extremes as our new normal. However, noting that the volume loss for Swiss glaciers in the past decade was more than expected based on projected scenarios for the 21st century, he is certain that, “if it is the latter, then we might expect Swiss glaciers to disappear even earlier than expected.”

According to Beniston, since the 3rd Assessment Report of the IPCC in 2001, projections have estimated that at the current rate of climate change, glaciers will decline by anywhere from 50 to 90 percent by 2100. “[This year] provides a measure of things to come,” he said, “in the sense that by the second half of the 21st century, what are considered extreme summers today (like 2018) will become average summers.”

Ultimately, Haeberli told GlacierHub he sees these striking glacier mass losses as “writing on the wall,” indicating that opportunities for action to reduce impacts of global warming are now being lost. He closed his comments by calling upon the necessity of “rapid deceleration” of greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit negative effects on living conditions on Earth and allow us more time to “develop well-reflected sustainable adaptation strategies.”

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Photo Friday: Glaciers in the Canton of Valais

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.

The Aletsch Glacier, known in German as Grosser Aletschgletscher (Source: Fiona Bunn).

 

Fifty kilometers south, is the Grenz glacier, which flows between the Monte Rosa and Lyskamm mountains of the Pennine Alps.

Monte Rosa at 4,634 meters (Source: Fiona Bunn).

 

The 4,357 meter Dent Blanche at dawn (Source: Fiona Bunn).

 

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.”

Indigenous Valais black-nosed sheep (Source: Fiona Bunn).

 

Lyskamm at 4527 meters and Grenz Glacier (Source: Fiona Bunn).

 

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 fibunnphotos@gmail.com. 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.

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Photo Friday: Swiss Army Airlifts Water to Cows in High-Mountain Pastures

This summer’s drought in Switzerland has been particularly harsh with the Swiss Weather Service declaring the months of July and August the driest since 1921. This severe water shortage has hit farmers hard in the heavily glacierized Alps, especially those with herds of cattle. In the highlands of the Canton of Vaud in western Switzerland, each head of cattle requires an astonishing 150 liters of water a day to subsist. To help the farmers and their cows struggling in the record dry conditions, the Swiss Army has been airlifting water by helicopter to these farms in terrain that is too difficult to reach by truck. Check out the photos below of the water airlifts in action.

Photo of a helicopter dropping water
A helicopter delivering water to a farmer in the Swiss Canton of Vaud (Source: Ryder-Walker/Twitter).

 

Close up photo of airlift water delivery
A close-up view of an airlift water delivery (Source: Global Times/Twitter).

 

Photo of a cow and a helicopter
Cow graze in a pasture in Switzerland with a Swiss Army helicopter carrying water in the background (Source: Reuters UK/Twitter).

 

Photo of a pasture in Vaud
A pasture in the Canton of Vaud (Source: Guillaume Baviere/Creative Commons).

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Highest Plants on Earth Discovered Near Glacier

High above the sub-tropical forests and lush grasslands of Nepal, nestled between the scree and moraine from the glaciers of Mount Everest, plants are found braving the elements and surviving in some of the harshest conditions on the planet. Rarely studied, these plants are key to solving the mysteries of plant growth at the world’s highest elevations.

Satellite images of the Mount Everest region with the locations of both the 1935 and 1952 expeditions samples (Source: Alpine Botany/DigitalGlobe/Google).

For over 60 years, three plant specimens collected near a glacier during a 1952 Everest expedition sat unstudied at the Conservatory and Botanical Garden of the City of Geneva in Switzerland. Research published last month in the journal Alpine Botany has unearthed these three specimens and details their identification as “novel taxa,” or new species.

The Swiss-led expedition that collected the specimens was one of two historical attempts to summit Mt. Everest and bring back plant samples. Its counterpart, a British-led expedition in 1935, collected two other high-altitude specimens. Together, at an elevation of well over 6,000 meters above sea level, these five specimens make up a collection of the highest vascular plants on Earth. No plants have ever been collected and identified at a higher elevation, the study notes.

According to the article, this taxonomic investigation contributes to our “knowledge of the biogeography of Himalayan flora and opens the way for future field-based investigations of mechanisms limiting plant growth on the roof of the world.”

During the time of the original collection, mountaineering was crucial to botanists in their quest for sampling biological data in high elevations, as there was no other way for scientists to acquire samples due to the harsh and dangerous conditions. Today it remains hard to identify the ecological conditions and physiological capacity of plants at the upper limits of their distribution. Elevation records alone cannot offer such information, and mountaineers do not extensively report on any of the surrounding conditions.

“Historical botanical data are very scarce but have an amazing potential to study changes of plant communities in altitude, especially facing global changes,” Cédric Dentant, the author of the study, told GlacierHub.

Khumba Glacier in Nepal, near where the three plants from the 1952 expedition were collected (Source: Ben & Gab/Flickr).

The importance of historical data is what led him to begin checking as many archives as possible over the years in an effort to find studies and reports of various expeditions. The Swiss expedition was the second in Nepal and well documented, so it was easy for Dentant to track down samples for his research.

“Actually, because of my request to study the 1952 Swiss expedition samples, the curators of the herbarium of the Geneva Botanical Conservatory rediscovered they had these samples,” Dentant admitted.

A botanist and alpinist who usually studies high-altitude plants in the European Alps, he ventured to the world of Himalayan flora when the opportunity arose.

Of the three specimens, Dentant was able to identify one as the previously-known species Arenaria bryophylla, which was encountered on scree and moraine (a mass of rock and sediment deposited by a glacier) on a cliff bordering the north side of the Khumba Glacier in Nepal. The glacier lies next to a key Everest climbing route. The mountaineers originally accessed the area from the south side of the glacier.

Saxifraga lychnitis var. everestianus. a Leaves forming rosette, with several stems and a short and thick axillary stem; b individual with loose rosette; c leaf with glandular hair on the margin and brown glands on surfaces (Source: Alpine Botany/C. Dentant).

The other two specimens from the expedition ended up being entirely new species. Both were found in rock crevices. Saxifraga lychnitis var. everestianus and Androsace khumbuensis were classified using standard methods of herbarium taxonomy. The latter was named after the Khumbu Glacier, where it was also found.

Interestingly, Saxifraga lychnitis var. everestianus had axillary stems, which the other varieties do not have. This “may represent an adaptation to the plant’s extreme habitat,” according to the article, since the stems “anchor the plant in the unstable substrate and may protect the base of the stem from freezing.”

As Dentant stated, in regard to the drive to produce scientific knowledge, “describing what is beyond the word ‘biodiversity’ is very challenging.” Today, he believes climate change may bring a renewed interest from mountaineers in collecting organisms for scientific purposes.

He explained that since mountaineers must grapple with climate change as the mountain environments change and adapt their techniques, this leaves them open to talking about related issues.

“They turn out to be more concerned about these incredible organisms and may try to help in gathering samples,” Dentant said.

Such efforts would help shed light on these under-studied species and leave open the possibility for the title of the highest vascular plant on Earth to be reclaimed once again.

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Town Evacuates After Part of Swiss Glacier Collapses

On Saturday, September 9, part of the Trift glacier in the Swiss Alps broke off and crashed into a glacier below it. About 220 people of Saas-Grund, a small nearby ski town, evacuated the area as a precaution, said local police spokesman Simon Bumann. The collapsed piece measured approximately 500,000 cubic meters. Local authorities who had been surveilling the glacier found that the glacier’s tongue, a long and narrow extension of ice, was moving at about 130 centimeters per day, according to the Valais canton police.

The village of Saas Grund in the Swiss Alps (Source: Wandervogel/Creative Commons).

It was during the night that the glacier’s movement began to increase. Eventually, more than two-thirds of the glacier’s front edge broke off on Sunday morning, but the debris that hit the glacier below didn’t reach the surrounding inhabited areas. Authorities feared that the broken piece could have triggered an ice avalanche, potentially impacting the town. In August, eight hikers were buried when a rockfall triggered an avalanche in Bondo, Switzerland. The avalanche in Bondo moved about four million cubic meters of mud and debris, which is the equivalent of 4,000 houses, about 500 meters, according to the regional natural hazards office.

Since the evacuation ended in Saas-Grund, residents have been able to return to their homes, and local roads around the glacier have reopened. As a precaution, the area underneath the glacier, including hiking trails, remains closed to walkers.

A view of the Trift glacier that partially collapsed in September (Source: SWIswissinfo.ch/YouTube).

Thanks to Martin Funk, a glaciologist at the technology institute ETH Zurich, the surrounding villages were able to evacuate in time before any damage had been done. Funk had recommended that an expensive radar system be reinstalled just three days prior to the incident to keep an eye on the glacier. Rangers in the Saas-Grund area have monitored the Trift glacier since 2014, when they first noticed that the north face of the Weissmies mountain had broken off. But an earlier radar system that had been installed in the area was later removed due to the high price of its innovative technology. The system is said to have cost authorities around 400 francs a day, or about 417 dollars.

“In 2014, it was found that the Trift glacier in the Weissmies area moves faster than is usual for glaciers in our region. Afterwards, the behavior of the Trift glacier was closely monitored,” said Sandra Schnydrig, head of housing control at the municipality of Saas-Grund, to GlacierHub. “In the years 2015 and 2016, the glacier was permanently monitored with a radar arm and the behavior of the glacier was analyzed. At the beginning of 2017, a more simple measurement method was installed via photo analysis.”

There was no imminent threat until this year, when Funk saw that the glacier had begun moving again in the photos. “On Tuesday, September 5, the photo analysis showed that the Trift glacier started to move faster. Immediately afterwards, it was decided to reinstall the wheel arm measurement and to observe the behavior of the glacier more closely,” said Schnydrig. But when Funk urged authorities to reinstall the radar system, there was none available. The last radar in Switzerland had been sent to Bondo, another valley in the Swiss Alps, which recently suffered damage from an avalanche and mudslide.

Fortunately, on September 7, a radar system was sent from Germany and installed on the Trift glacier. With the proper equipment, Funk was able to predict the imminent collapse. “The degree of monitoring of this glacier is much greater than for most other glaciers in the world,” Jeff Kargel, senior associate research scientist and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, told GlacierHub. “Technology is getting close to a point where satellite-based monitoring can detect the precursory movements of ice and result in semi-automated alerts. We are not far from being able to do that all over the world.”

A map of Saas-Grund in Switzerland (Source: Cities of the World/YouTube).

The glacier will continue to be under constant evaluation. A third of the glacier’s snout remains and is unstable. Bruno Ruppen, president of the commune, was reportedly satisfied with the way the evacuation was carried out for this incident because the glacier did not cause any damage. “It could not have gone better,” he told local reporters.

The village of Saas-Grund was fortunate the recent event didn’t cause damage or casualties, but if the glacier continues to retreat at its current rate, it is assumed that more pieces of ice could break off. “The loss of ice below these remnants and the withdrawal of physical support from these pieces of the glacier means that they are very likely to fracture and slide off, especially during warm weather episodes when the ice melts, water gets in between the ice and the bed, and the whole mass becomes very slippery and weakened by fractures,” Kargel explained. “Therefore, the very common style of climate-change-driven glacier thinning, retreat, and seasonal melting is very often accompanied by this type of ice avalanche.”

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Glaciers, Geoheritage and Geotourism

Painting of The Great Eiger, as seen from Wengernalp in Valais (Source: Maximilien de Meuron/Creative Commons).
Painting of The Great Eiger, as seen from Wengernalp in Valais (Source: Maximilien de Meuron/Creative Commons).

The Valais in southern Switzerland is a mountainous canton that draws tourists each year for its spectacular scenery, including some of the largest glaciers in the central Alps. From a recent article written by Emmanual Reynard in Geoheritage and Geotourism, we learn that more than half of the canton’s workforce are employed by the tourism sector. Valais has long been a tourist hub in Switzerland, attracting sightseers and skiers to the two alpine ranges that lie on either side of the canton. This landscape played an important role in European art and literature, and Valais is also known as a key site for the development of glaciology. Tourists venture to the province not only for a glimpse of frosted peaks such as the famous Matterhorn and Weisshorn, but also to engage with the canton’s long history of geotourism and geoheritage which dates back to the 1800s. 

Winter Tourism, 1900-1910 - Mediatheque Valais
Winter tourism in Valais, 1900-1910 (Source: Mediatheque Valais).

The word geoheritage originates from the term “geological heritage,” and is defined by the diversity of geological features within a region. The Geological Society of America (GSA) applies the term to scientifically and educationally significant sites or areas with geologic features such as distinctive rocks, minerals and landforms. Geotourism is the exploration of such places.

Sarah Strauss, an anthropologist at the University of Wyoming, has conducted extensive research in the Valais region. She believes that geoheritage is “very similar to landscape and a sense of place that is specific to the geologic rather than the broader environmental context.” Moreover, geoheritage is valuable because it permits geotourism. Canton Valais’s long history with tourism has reinforced its status as a geotourism hot-spot as climbers and hikers come to experience this glacial history for themselves.  

Painting depicting geotourism, 1868 (Source: Médiathèque Valais).
Painting depicting geotourism, 1868 (Source: Médiathèque Valais).

As the GSA explains, “geological sites are critical to advancing knowledge about natural hazards, groundwater supply, soil processes, climate and environmental changes, evolution of life, mineral and energy supplies, and other aspects of the nature and history of Earth.” These sites should be protected and cherished for their natural beauty and importance. The tourism industry in Valais continues to celebrate its geoheritage through geotourism.

The complex geology of Valaisthe result of uplift and compression when the Alps first formed 20 to 40 million years ago has made it a site of geoheritage throughout the centuries. Today, tourists and hikers can view crystalline and carbonate rocks formed millions of years ago on trails rising 800 to over 4,200 meters in elevation. Moreover, the region contains glacial valleys and horn peaks, as well as moraines, the masses of dirt and rocks deposited by glaciers.

The Aletsch region of Valais is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is heralded as a site of outstanding natural and cultural importance. This region makes up the most glaciated part of the High Alps along with Jungfrau and Bietschhorn. The Aletsch is also home to the largest glacier in Europe. “While the Matterhorn is impressive, the Aletsch region is equally remarkable,” Strauss recalled to GlacierHub. “There were chapels and hotels built at the tongue of the glaciers.”

Chapel (lower left quadrant) was built in 19th c. next to glacier in Dalatal. By 2003, it was far from the remnants of the same glacier (the upper right quadrant) (Source: Sarah Strauss).

Tourists that journey to Canton Valais will not be disappointed by the geologically significant province which embraces its geoheritage wholeheartedly. If you are unable to make the journey to Switzerland any time soon, enjoy pictures from the Valais tourism website here.

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Photo Friday: Ice diving in the Alps – Glacial Lake Sassolo

Franco Banfi is a professional underwater photographer, renowned for his spectacular images of marine wildlife, captured across every ocean on the planet. In 2010, Banfi, a Swiss national, dived into the Lago di Sassolo (Lake Sassolo) to reveal the hidden wonders of the ice mazes which form in the glacial lake at 6,560 feet (2,000 m) above sea level, in the European Alps.

Banfi's diving partner, Sabrina, navigates an ice tunnel (Source: Franco Banfi)
Banfi’s diving partner, Sabrina Belloni, navigates an ice tunnel (Source: Franco Banfi)

Ice diving is highly technical, and is complicated when undertaken at altitude. Banfi has been diving for 35 years, and has “around 100 dives under the ice,” experience gained through his pursuit of the perfect image of rarely seen species. In 2005, Banfi chased Greenland sharks (Somniosus microcephalus) in the Arctic Circle, and leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) in the Antarctic Ocean.

Banfi wound his way through the sub- and englacial pathways of the ice, in temperatures around 35.6-37.4°F (2-3°C). He remarked, “It can be dangerous if you don’t know the place and if you don’t have experience in an ice environment.” However, Banfi was raised in Cadro, Switzerland, and grew up diving Lago di Lugano (Lugano Lake).

Banfi's diving partner dives feet from the surface, obscured by thick chunks of ice (Source: Franco Banfi)
Banfi’s diving partner dives feet from the surface, obscured by thick chunks of ice (Source: Franco Banfi)

Reflecting on the dangers of his dive at Sassolo, Banfi said “It gets quite dark depending on how much ice there is above your head at the surface – so in some places with thicker ice it gets dangerously dark.” He added, “Ice like this can collapse anytime,” as the exhaled bubbles alter the buoyancy of the overlaying ice.

According to the seasoned diver, his underwater model and dive partner Sabrina Belloni joined him on the journey through the icey labyrinth, but was hesitant, awaiting terrifying signs of an imminent failure of the thick ice. “You can usually hear the crack, but not always,” said Banfi. “If you hear this, it’s already too late.”

Sabrina Bellon swims between two vast plates of ice (Source: Franco Banfi)
Sabrina Belloni swims between two vast plates of ice (Source: Franco Banfi)

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Damming Switzerland’s Glaciers

An estimated 80 percent of Switzerland’s annual water supply will be “missing” by 2100, as glaciers in the Alps retreat under rising temperatures. A recent study by Swiss and Italian researchers addresses this anticipated loss by exploring whether dams could replicate the hydrological role of glaciers. Like glaciers, the dams would contain and store meltwaters at high elevations in the valleys where the glaciers once resided.

The authors, Daniel Farinotti of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), Alberto Pistocchi of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and Matthias Huss of the University of Fribourg, call the approach “replacing glaciers with dams.” Their method seeks to harvest the diminishing glaciers’ waters to maintain Europe’s water supply and contribute to power generation.  .

The trio of authors are glaciologists and hydrologists, with expertise in chemistry, engineering, and resource management. Between them they have over 260 published works. Suffice it to say, they know what they are are talking about.

Speaking to GlacierHub, Pistocchi said that the idea occurred to him during one of his many cycling trips across the Alps. The possibility gripped him, and he began searching for colleagues in the field of glaciology to help him run scenarios on the future health of glaciers. He met with Huss, who had “recently investigated in depth the contribution of glaciers” to Alpine water resources. Farinotti was soon invited to provide an engineer’s perspective.

They studied how to “artificially sustain” the role of glaciers within the local hydrological cycle. The idea simply capitalizes on the natural processes already in motion. Meltwaters from glaciers naturally fill depressions, forming glacial lakes, or, if unimpeded, flowing into local rivers. Farinotti and his team were interested in determining how practical it would be to impound the runoff from melting glaciers with dams at the high elevations where the ice remains intact. They proposed that the glacier meltwater which accumulated would serve a similar role as the glacier had, as they would conserve the water and manage its release during drier seasons, thus maintaining a steady supply, and exploiting the newfound stores for power generation.

The Mooserboden storage dam in Austria (Source: VERBUND)
The Mooserboden storage dam in Austria (Source: VERBUND)

They found that while extensive melting will continue to provide meltwater from the European Alps in the near future, there are considerable logistical, financial, technical, diplomatic and bureaucratic hurdles to damming and storing it there.

Farinotti and his colleagues concluded that while their proposed strategy could preserve sufficient volumes to meet Europe’s water demands through 2100, the supply scheme is unavoidably “non-renewable.” The source glaciers’ volumes are finite, as is the quantity of water that could be dammed. Accordingly, without an additional strategy for replenishing the stores (i.e. pumping in Austria) in the high reaches of the Alps, the supply would eventually run out.

Between 1980-2009, glaciers supplied continental Europe with approximately 1,400 trillion gallons (5.28 km3) of freshwater per year — about 1 percent of the total volume consumed by the United States each year. The majority (75 percent) of the melt occurs (unsurprisingly) at the height of summer, from July through September.

Past and future runoff contribution from presently glacierized surfaces (Source: Farinotti et al., 2015)
Past and future runoff contribution from presently glacierized surfaces, using a moderate scenario (Source: Farinotti et al., 2015)

Rivers flowing from the Alps received considerable contributions from the glaciers at this time every year. During the peak, six percent of the Rhine, 11 percent of the Po, 38 percent of the Inn, and 53 percent of the Rhône comprise glacial meltwater, according to Farinotti and his colleagues.

As many modelers do, Farinotti and his colleagues examined the impacts of a range of climate change scenarios on the Alps’ glaciers. They projected the probable volumes of meltwater, and health of glaciers in response to optimistic, realistic, and pessimistic concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG).

They found that runoff from the European Alps’ 3,800 glaciers — which cover an area half the size of Glacier National Park — will increase over the next 23 years. However, the study finds that the summer meltwater contributions could decline by 15 percent mid-century. From 2070 to the end of the century, they project that the volume will decline by 29 percent in the best case scenario, but potentially up to 55 percent..

Farinotti, Pistocchi and Huss speculate that two-thirds of the decline in the water supply expected between 2070-2099 could be prevented, by “active water management,” such as their proposed method of damming the glaciers as or before they melt.

Farinotti’s team also see containing the source glaciers as means of overcoming some of the most common and controversial issues related to dam-building. From their perspective, their approach reduces the social and ecological tolls typically associated with dams, since people do not reside directly on the glaciers, and glaciated environments are hostile to most (but not all) plant and animal species. This method should avoid any need to “translocate”, or inundate thriving terrestrial biota, or disrupt river ecologies as elsewhere. Further, there should be next to no need to relocate any inhabitants, or for flooding historically or culturally significant sites.

However, a dam is a dam, and they all have their costs. Whether it be through sediment loading in rivers, increasing seismic activity, or influencing the region climate, dams are fraught with complications, as the World Bank elucidated in 2003.

In correspondence with GlacierHub, Farinotti and his colleagues acknowledged that the paper was not exhaustive and noted that the strategy could alleviate one particular problem, but certainly not solve all challenges.” Other research on the development of lakes in vicinity of glaciers have indicated that Pistocchi’s approach may actually exacerbate the rate of melt.

That’s because the  new presence of ponding water, which would have previously flowed down the mountain, would lower the reflectivity of the surfaces nearby the glaciers. This would result in the lakes absorbing the sun’s radiation, warming and likely accelerating ambient temperatures. Martin Beniston of the University of Fribourg alluded to the influence of glacial lakes on regional climate in 2001, in his paper “Climatic change in mountain regions: a review of possible impacts.” This would subsequently further promote glacier melt, as Jonathan Carrivick of the University of Leeds and Fiona Tweed of Staffordshire University also stated in 2006.

High altitude mountain glaciers, such as in the European Alps, are irrefutably disappearing at an alarming rate. Research led by Alex Gardner of Clark University found that between 2003-2009 approximately 259 gigatons of glacier ice was lost per year (excluding Greenland and Antarctic). That gargantuan loss in difficult to comprehend. But essentially it means that each and every year a quantity of ice greater than the total combined mass of 700,000 Empire States Buildings melts. Much of it ends up in the sea.

Glacier lake Effimero and Belbadere Glacier in Italy (Source: GLACIORISK)
An example of a glacier lake, on Belvedere Glacier in Italy (Source: GLACIORISK)

Farinotti, Pistocchi and Huss sought to “throw the stone in the pond,” (an Italian aphorism) the trio shared in correspondence with GlacierHub. They “wanted to animate the discussion about an idea that, apparently, has not been considered so far.” Radical approaches to adapting to the evolving threats of climate change are becoming increasingly necessary, though not always advisable.

This paper’s position is to err on the side of caution, and act preemptively to address the predicted water shortages that will plague Europe, while we still can. For the moment it seems a costly and impractical solution. But the same stance was adopted towards fracking when it first proposed. Today fracking provides at least half of America’s oil and gas. Will water become the “new oil”? Will our situation deteriorate to the point that damming glaciers becomes a viable solution?

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