In just two years, the total volume of glaciers in Switzerland has declined 10%, according to a new report.
The Swiss Commission for Cryosphere Observation, part of the Swiss Academy of Sciences, and Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland (GLAMOS), a glacier monitoring center, has uncovered “catastrophic” loss after two years with hot summers and low snow volumes. The Swiss glaciers experienced a record 6% loss in 2022 alone, the most amount lost since measurements began, around 1960 for most Swiss glaciers.
With the hottest summer on record for 2023, this year’s glacier volume loss is at 4%. Together, the 10% volume lost from 2022 to 2023 is the same amount lost from 1960 to 1990. Ice thickness loss for some glaciers was as much as 3 meters (nearly 10 feet)
Experts are now warning that even if global climate targets are met, it may be too late to prevent the loss of alpine ice fields, or stretches of multiple interconnected glaciers. Already, up to 1,000 small Swiss glaciers have been lost, The Associated Press reported.
“The two extreme consecutive years have led to glacier tongues collapsing and the disappearance of many smaller glaciers,” the Swiss Commission for Cryosphere Observation shared in a press release. “For example, measurements of the St. Annafirn glacier in the canton of Uri had to be suspended as a result.”
Even the larger glaciers, including Aletsch, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, could be gone within just one generation. In August 2023, the zero-degree Celsius level, or the elevation high enough for precipitation to freeze, increased from last year’s overnight record to 5,289 meters (17,350 feet), The Guardian reported.
This loss of ice impacts ecosystems and communities all the way to sea level. In normal circumstances, the ice should build up in the winter, then slowly melt down in the summer. The water then travels to rivers to provide freshwater to communities. But rapid ice loss can instead lead to flooding and landslides.
Since 1850, Alpine glacier loss has reached about 60%, SWI reported. These glaciers declined about 12% from 2016 to 2021.
“Glaciers are the ambassadors of climate change. They make it very clear what is happening out there because they respond in a very sensitive way to warming temperatures,” said Matthias Huss, head of GLAMOS, as reported by The Associated Press. “The study underlines once again that there is big urgency to act now if you want to stabilize (the) climate, and if you want to save at least some of the glaciers.”