Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Disappearing Glaciers of the European Alps

I am spending the first part of this week at the European Geophysical Union (EGU) meeting in Vienna.  One of the things that I like about meetings of this type is the opportunity to learn about advances in Earth sciences disciplines outside of the atmospheric sciences.

Glaciology talks has always been a personal favorite because of my love for snow and ice and the fact that they contain many beautiful photos and analyses.  The science of glaciology has been transformed in recent years by advances in numerical modeling, observational techniques, and remote sensing from space, aircraft or the ground.  Sadly, these advances, while providing greater detail and information than ever before, confirm the dramatic loss of glacial ice that is occurring around the world.

My host institution here in Austria, the University of Innsbruck, is a world leader in glaciology.  Glaciers that they study extensively include the Hintereisferner (HEF), Kesselwandferner (KWF) and Guslarferner (GF) in the Ötztal Alps (pictured below). 

Source: Strasser et al. (2018), photo by Christoph Mayer
The Hintereisferner has been comprehensively studied since the 1950s and is classified as a 'reference glacier' by the World Glacier Monitoring Service because of it's long record of continuous observation.  It has retreated significantly since reaching it's Little Ice Age maximum in the 1800s.

Source: Kuhn and Lambrecht (2007)
Annual mass balance data from the Hintereisferner and Kesselwandferner show a trend toward years with substantial mass loss since observations were first collected in 1952.  In these plots, years with mass gain are indicated by blue bars and mass loss by red bars, with the length of the bars proportional to the gain or loss.  

Source: Strasser et al. (2018)
Such trends are seen for most glaciers in the Alps.

Atmospheric and glacier modeling is getting to the point where scientists are now beginning to model glacier mass balance change through the end of the century.  Below is an example presented yesterday by Harry Zekollari and available (with reviews) from the journal The Cryosphere.  Under a scenario where the increase in global mean temperature is limited to 2˚C (RCP2,6, top figure below), the total loss of Alpine glacier mass volume is about 50%, although some glaciers lose substantial mass (dark dots below), while high-altitude glaciers lose less (light dots below).  Under a high-greenhouse-gas emissions scenario (RCP8.5), nearly all of the glacial ice in the Alps is gone by the end of the century.  A small amount of ice remains in the Mer de Glace on Mt. Blanc and other high glacier regions of France and Switzerland.  

Source: Zakollari et al. (2019)
Fascinating science, but also very sobering if you are a lover of snow and ice. 

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