As much as we reduce carbon dioxide emissions today, it is already too late: half of the glaciers in the Alps are doomed to disappear by 2050. Half a century later, 90% will have melted, if not due to climate change we take action to reduce global warming. This is clear from the first large study of 4,000 alpine glaciers carried out by ETH Zurich.
How Alpine glaciers will disappear?
After 2050, “the future evolution of glaciers will largely depend on how the climate will evolve,” says study leader Harry Zekollari, a researcher at ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research. “In case of more limited warming, a much more substantial part of the glaciers could be saved,” he says.
Melting glaciers would have a major impact on the Alps, as glaciers are an important part of the region’s ecosystem, landscape and economy. They attract tourism to the mountain ranges and act as natural freshwater reservoirs for fauna and flora, as well as for agriculture and hydroelectricity, which is especially important in hot and dry periods.
“In the event of a more limited warming, a much more substantial part of the glaciers could be saved,” explains the scientist. The retreat of the glaciers would have a major impact on the Alps, an important part of the region’s ecosystem, landscape and economy. They attract tourists to the mountain ranges and act as natural reservoirs of fresh water. Glaciers provide a source of water for fauna and flora, as well as for agriculture and hydroelectricity, which is especially important in hot and dry periods.
To find out how alpine glaciers will behave in a warming world, Zekollari and his colleagues used new computer models (combining ice flow and melting processes) and real observation data. They used 2017 as the current baseline, a year when alpine glaciers had a total volume of about 100 cubic kilometres.
37 cubic kilometres
Under a scenario involving limited warming, called RCP2.6, greenhouse gas emissions will peak in the next few years and then decline rapidly, keeping the level of aggregate warming at the end of the century below 2°c from pre-industrial levels. In this case, alpine glaciers would shrink to about 37 cubic kilometres by the year 2100, barely a third of their current volume.
The high emissions scenario, corresponding to RCP8.5, emissions will continue to increase rapidly for decades to come. “In this pessimistic case, the Alps will be virtually ice-free by the year 2100, with only isolated high-altitude ice patches remaining, representing 5% or less of the current ice volume,” says Matthias Huss, a researcher at ETH Zurich co-author of the study, published in The Cryosphere. Global emissions are currently just above what is projected in this scenario.
Glaciers: fossils of the climate of other times
The Alps would lose approximately 50% of their current glacier volume by 2050 in all scenarios. One reason the volume loss is largely independent of emissions through 2050 is that the rise in mean global temperature with rising greenhouse gases became more pronounced in the second half of the century.
Another reason is that glaciers today have “too much” ice: their volume, especially at lower elevations, still reflects the colder climate of the past because they are slow to respond to changing weather conditions.
Even if we manage to stop climate warming, keeping it at the level of the last 10 years, glaciers would still lose about 40% of their current volume by 2050 due to this “glacier response time,” says Zekollari.
“Glaciers in the European Alps and their recent evolution are some of the clearest indicators of ongoing changes in climate,” says ETH Zurich co-lead author Daniel Farinotti. “The future of these glaciers is at risk, but there is still a chance to limit their future losses.”
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