Alps Glaciers Gone by 2050, Expert Says

John Roach
for National Geographic News
January 23, 2007
Glaciers are quickly disappearing from the Alps and will be all but gone
by 2050, a climate expert said Monday. That's 50 years earlier than a href="
alps.html">July 2006 study predicted.

The loss would change the supply of drinking and irrigation water, lead to more falling rocks, and cripple the European ski industry.

On average about 3 percent of Alpine glacial ice is lost each year, said Roland Psenner, a fresh water scientist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. That corresponds to about 3.3 feet (1 meter) of ice thickness.

Ten percent was lost in the record-breaking heat of 2003. Seven percent was lost in 2006, Psenner said.

"If the melting goes on at this pace, glaciers will be gone by 2030 to 2050—except some high-altitude sites in the French, Swiss, and Italian Alps," he wrote in an email to National Geographic News.

Psenner's research was discussed Monday at an annual conference on the Alps in the Austrian mountain resort of Alpbach.

(See photos of the melting Alps from National Geographic magazine.)

Consistent Message

Lonnie Thompson is a glaciologist at the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University. He said the loss of glacier ice in the Alps is consistent with global trends.

In the past year he and his colleagues have studied glaciers on Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro, the Andes in Peru, and the Himalaya in Asia.

"At all these sites it's the same story. Not only are the glaciers retreating, they are accelerating in the rate at which they are retreating," Thompson said. "That's very consistent with what's going on with the glaciers in the Alps."

Glaciers have, on average, lost about 31 feet (9.6 meters) since 1980, according to the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, which keeps tabs on 30 glaciers in nine mountain ranges around the world.

That Alpine glaciers are melting fast is old news to European ski resorts, which are watching the multimillion-dollar winter tourism trade trickle away.

The Andermatt resort in Switzerland made headlines in 2005 when it decided to wrap part of its glacier in a high-tech blanket designed to stop the melting.

Complicated Cause

Global warming fueled by greenhouse gas emissions appears to be the main cause of the melting glaciers, according to the University of Innsbruck's Psenner (see our global warming fast facts). Studies of prehistoric climate, though, suggest that Alpine glaciers nearly disappeared at least once in the past 10,000 years.

Thompson said past glacier meltdowns were likely related to changes in characteristics of Earth's orbit, which occur on cycles that last between about 20,000 and 100,000 years. Today's changes have occurred in the last hundred years.

The melting trend "is consistent with projections that have been made based on warming occurring due to increases in greenhouse gas in our atmosphere," Thompson said.

Psenner noted that the past glacial melting occurred when atmospheric levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) were 280 parts per million. Today's carbon dioxide levels are approaching 385 parts per million.

"Even if we could manage to keep the CO2 level constant at 385 parts per million—mission: impossible—the glaciers will disappear within one generation," he said.

"So the disappearance of the glaciers is more a factor of time than of increasing temperature: They will be gone even if we keep the climate of today."

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