In high placesComparing the impact of climate breakdown in the Alps and the Himalaya
An exhibit at the Swiss Alpine Museum here last month was a stark reminder of how fast the mountains are changing due to climate breakdown.
In the Après-Lift exhibition, author Daniel Anker documented the disappearance of Europe's once-popular skiing culture, with the sport moving higher up the mountains due to global warming.
The Tête de Ran skilift built in 1942 shut down in 2010, another one in Aargau was dismantled because of the lack of snow. The Col de Montvoie skilift was shut because making artificial snow became too costly.
For many Swiss like avid climber and skier Fritz Indermühle, this has made it harder to enjoy a favourite past-time. He says, “I remember Silberhorn used to be completely white, now it is an unrecognisable black rock.”
Many in Nepal who have also seen the ice disappear on Himalayan peaks will find this familiar. Mt Machapuchre was a rocky black pyramid this winter, even though it is nearly 7,000m high.
Indeed, across the Alps and the Himalaya, the climate crisis is no longer an apocalyptic theme in a science fiction novel. It is happening within a generation in front of the eyes of people living in the foothills of both mountain ranges.
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"In both the Alps and the Himalaya, climate change is having a devastating effect,” says Pema Gyamtsho, Director General of the International Centre for Integrated Mountains Development (ICIMOD) who is a former politician from Bhutan and did his PhD at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zürich.
He adds, “Alpine glaciers are melting as fast as in the Himalaya, snowfall patterns are erratic, and transboundary issues in Europe have become more important because of the socio-economic impact of melting ice.“
ICIMOD and the Alpine Convention are now sharing their cryosphere research and pushing the mountain agenda at climate summits, including COP28 in Dubai in November.
Scientists from the Glacier Monitoring Switzerland (GLAMOS) have found that the Alps have lost 30-50% of their ice mass in the last decade. Even more melting is expected this year because of forecast heat waves in Europe.
Compared to the Himalaya, Alpine glaciers appear to be in even more trouble because of reduced winter snow accumulation, record summer heat, and deposition of wind-blown sand from the Sahara.
Matthias Huss of GLAMOS has taken to social media to urge global action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and shows through dramatic graphics that it is still not too late to act.
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He writes: “If we manage to limit global warming to 1.5°C or 2°C, we can still save about a third of the volume of Alpine glaciers.”
It is easier to see the change in the Alps compared to the Himalaya since the first daguerreotype of Matterhorn was made in 1849, whereas the first photographs of the north slope of Mt Everest were only taken in 1921. The photographs of the Alps are shocking before-after images of receding snowlines and shrinking glaciers. In the Alps, one of the most vivid examples of glacial retreat is found in the Great Aletsch Glacier which used to be 14km long and 800m thick, once storing 20% of all the ice in the Alps.
The Great Aletsch is visibly shorter and thinner today compared to photographs taken by the author in 1979. Alpine glaciers are not just melting, scientists say, the thaw is accelerating. Some of them have lost up to three times more ice mass just in 2022 than in the last ten years.
Just as there are now occasional meltpools at the South Col of Mt Everest, and a river runs through the Khumbu Glacier at Base Camp, in Switzerland icefalls have turned into waterfalls in just three decades.
Scientists say that at present rates of ice loss in the Alps, Jungfraujoch on the saddle between the four-thousanders Jungfrau and Mönch will have no snow left by the end of the century.
The Alps are older, they are more stable geologically, but since they are at a higher latitude the snowline is at 2,700m, compared to 5,000-6,000 in the Himalaya.
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But just as European countries downstream depend on water that originate from Alpine glaciers, nearly 2 billion people in Asia rely on the water towers of the Himalaya and Hindu Kush feeding rivers.
As glaciers thaw in the Alps, they are exposing human remains entombed in ice. Items from an Air India Boeing 707 that crashed into Mont Blanc on approach to Geneva in 1966 have emerged in Chamonix, including newspapers, an Indian diplomatic pouch, and jewelry.
Computer modelling at the ETH Zurich and the University of Freiburg by Matthias Huss and his team have shown that even if greenhouse emissions are capped at 1.5°C the terminus of the Great Aletsch Glacier will still lose half its volume and recede 10km from where it is now during this century. But if the global average temperature continues to rise, the glacier will be replaced by a large lake.
Because of its location amidst some of the richest countries in the world, governments here are better placed to cope with an Alpine meltdown than countries bordering the Himalaya. The impact on skiing will be an inconvenience.
Even so, a fall in water levels of the Rhine and other rivers can have serious economic consequences.
Says ICIMOD’s Pema Gyamtsho: “Alpine ecosystems are relatively well managed as compared to the Himalayan ones. We in the Himalaya are still a long way from reaching that level of development.”
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