Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Devastated Alpine Glaciers

It's been an awful year for glaciers and summer skiing in the European Alps. 

In 1985 there were 32 operating glacier skiing resorts in the European Alps. Not all of these operated year round, but most provided skiing for part of the warm season.  Only a handful remain today.  Two, Hintertux in Austria and Zermatt in Switzerland, have historically operated 365 days a year on upper-elevation glaciers.  Glacier areas in Saas Fe (Switzerland) and Passo Stelvio (Italy) are open in the summer but closed for other parts of the year.  Other resorts that operate for parts of the summer include Kitzsteinhorn (Austria), Mölltal (Austria), Les 2 Alpes (France), Tignes (France), and Cervinia (Italy).  Racing camps are probably a big part of their business.  

This year, however, Zermatt suspended operations on July 29.  As announced by Zermatt Bergbahnen,

"The mild winter of 2021/2022, which saw little snowfall, leaving only a thin covering of snow in Zermatt Bergbahnen's summer skiing area, combined with high summer temperatures and rainfall at over 4000 meters above sea level, necessitate a temporary discontinuation of summer skiing activities."

Summer skiing on glaciers typically requires seasonal snow.  The upper portions of glaciers are preferred for skiing because they often hold seasonal snow deep into or through the summer.  In recent years, tarps and snow farming have been used to preserve snow and extend the season.  I suspect at Zermatt there is a lack of sufficient seasonal snow to cover the firn (intermediate between snow and glacial ice) and glacial ice and fill crevasses.  Photos from Mölltaler Glacier in Austria from last summer and this summer show this has happened at that resort.  On August 6, 2021, a decent amount of seasonal snow cover remained on their upper-elevation terrain.  If you look carefully, you can see a couple of groomers to the right and what appear to be a few skiers and ski tracks near the top of that run.  

Source: foto-webcam.eu

This August 6, the resort is unskiable. Only a few patches of seasonal snow remain.  

Source: foto-webcam.eu

The Hintertux Glacier report from Ski Racing indicates a similar situation there, although they are still skiing (barely).  

Alpine glaciers have been losing mass for decades, but annual mass-loss rates have been increasing.  The most carefully studied glacier in Austria is the Hintereisferner southeast of Sölden and just north of the border with Italy (Scientists access the glacier via lifts at Val Senales in Italy).  Measurements illustrate a negative mass balance, meaning mass loss or summer melt exceeding winter accumulation, every year since 1983, with a trend towards larger mass losses each year.  
Source: World Glacier Monitoring Service (https://wgms.ch/products_ref_glaciers/hintereisferner-alps/)

Photos of the lower Hintereisferner show the retreat of the glacier front from 2018 to today, just a four year period.

Source: https://www.foto-webcam.eu/

Source: https://www.foto-webcam.eu/

We should see mass balance numbers for this past year fairly soon.  I suspect the numbers won't be pretty.  


  1. It is stunning in a depressing fashion how much ice loss comes with a 1.2 C or so global average temperature increase. I don’t think we have any chance of holding that average to 1.5 C but even if we did the ice loss would be staggering. Assuming we could remove CO2 from the atmosphere in a responsible and economic manner do we have to go all the way back to 280 ppm of CO2 to get to a preindustrial climate? Seems like even 350 ppm, which is a number I’ve seen thrown around, is going to be a very significant net loss in in ice compared to first half of 1900s.

    1. Glaciers are not yet in equilibrium with current temperatures, so even if we stabilized now, we would see further losses.

      The paleoclimate record shows pretty well that what we think of as small changes in temperature result in major shifts in the cryosphere.