Blankets cover glacier to halt ice melt

2015-12-12 16:50


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Rhone Glacier - From afar, the Rhone glacier looks pristine, but on closer inspection the surface is covered with white blankets to slow the melting of the rapidly retreating ice.

The dusty, white fleece covers stretch out over a huge area near the glacier's edge, some in rumpled piles alongside sand, rocks, a few wooden planks and a ladder on its side.

With a red and white Swiss flag providing the only dash of colour, they looks like tents in a vast deserted refugee camp, out of place in the Alpine setting.

Ice melt

But hiding underneath the blankets is a Swiss tourist attraction: a long and winding ice grotto with glistening blue walls and a leaky ceiling that has been carved into the ice each year since 1870.

"For the past eight years, they have had to cover the ice cave with these blankets to reduce the ice melt," said David Volken, a glaciologist working with the Swiss environment ministry, poking at a piece of cloth lying near the path that leads to the cave's opening.

The blankets, he said, reduce the ice melt by as much as 70%, explaining why the covered cave towers far above the nearby centre of the glacier tongue, which slopes lazily into a pine-green lake.

But while the blankets help slow the melting and allow the ice grotto to remain open through the hot summer, they are a very temporary fix.

A full 1 400m down the mountain side, near the small village of Gletch, a wooden post signals where the glacier once ended back in 1856.

Accelerated pace

Since then, the Rhone glacier has lost around 350m in ice thickness - about 40m in the past decade alone.

It is not the only Alpine glacier feeling the heat. Studies show that around two-thirds of the ice volume in the Alps has vanished since 1850.

"The Rhone glacier is quite typical of what is happening in the Alps," said Matthias Huss, a glaciologist at Fribourg University.

"We're seeing less new ice created in higher altitudes even as the lower parts of the glaciers are melting at an accelerated pace."

The glacier loses between five and seven metres in ice thickness each year and within the next decade it is expected to lose half of its current volume.

Read more on:    switzerland  |  global warming  |  climate change

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