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The lifespan of a glacier is centuries-long; the twilight years, however, can go remarkably quickly. Such is the case for Switzerland's Rhone Glacier, only 10 percent of which is expected to remain by the end of the century. Some local residents, alarmed by the melting, have resorted to palliative care methods.
For the past eight years, owners of the land that is home to an ice cave, carved into the Rhone glacier each year since 1870, have been covering the ice with blankets. The blankets, which protect the ice from the sun's radiation during the hot summer months, have been shown to reduce melting between 50 and 70 percent, said David Volken, a glaciologist working with the Swiss Environment Ministry.
"It's good for the ice grotto but it can't stop melting," said Volken. "You can't cover the entire Rhone glacier with blankets."
The Rhone glacier, near the town of Gletsch, has long been a popular spot for tourists, many of whom come during the summer months to walk through the ethereal blue silence of the glacier's man-made grotto. Increasingly, though, being in the belly of this glacier feels like being inside of a quickly deteriorating body.
Photographs of the glacier from last year compared to ones taken in 2007 are dramatic. What was once a sprawling and thick mass of ice now appears scrawny. One state of matter has changed to another: Where once there was glacier, now there is lake.
"We expect five to six hundred new lakes by the end of the century," said Volken, adding that the impact of these lakes can lead to what he calls the Coca-Cola effect. "Ice melts faster in Coke than on its own, just as ice melts faster in water than in air."
Samuel Nussbaumer, a scientist with the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) at the University of Zurich, said that the world's glaciers are melting two to three times faster now than during the 20th century.
The WGMS, made up of researchers from over 30 countries, published their findings in the Journal of Glaciology this past August. The results were based on worldwide data gathered over the past 120 years, which provided a basis for comparison between melt rates in the 20th and 21st centuries. The bottom line — that the current rate of glacier melt is unprecedented on a global level — is based on numerical data as well as written and illustrated historical documents.
The primary cause of the increased rate of melting is rising temperatures, and while an increase in two to four degrees Fahrenheit might not be a tangible and dramatic difference to a human, glaciers are particularly sensitive.
"We don't feel it, but the tongue of the glacier does," said Nussbaumer, adding that annual mass changes in glaciers are a "direct climatic signal."
While mass is one way of measuring glacier loss, sheer size is another. Glacier length, unlike changes in mass, is slower in responding to environmental changes. Whereas a hot summer will have an immediate effect on mass, conditions that impact glacier lengths taker longer to show up. "There are twenty to thirty years of delay," said Nussbaumer. Put simply, this means that current glacier lengths are a mirror of what was happening two to three decades ago; what we do now will be observed by the next generation.
"The only thing we can do is limit emissions and decrease temperatures," Nussbaumer said. In terms of glacier survival, the options are between bad and worse. "Depending what we do now, in 150 years we will have between zero to 10 percent of glacier mass left."
While blankets might be an effective short-term and hyperlocal solution to melting, the World Wildlife Federation has been critical of the practice because it doesn't provide a long-term solution, said Pierrette Rey, a spokesperson for the organization's Swiss chapter. "We also don't know the effects of this on the overall ecosystem."
Rey recalled the awe inspired by her country's glaciers during hiking trips with her parents as a child. "When I return now I can see the difference," she said. "They haven't disappeared but they have shrunk a lot."
Glaciers, because of their sensitivity to both short-term and long-term fluctuations in temperature, are a good indication of larger trends in climate change, said Nussbaumer. "Everyone can observe the changes."
Beyond the local impact of reduced tourism and the loss of a natural phenomenon that has become part of Switzerland's heritage and national identity, the melting glaciers will have very practical impacts on the country. Nussbaumer said these could include diminished sources of fresh water used for irrigation, drinking, and hydroelectric power, as well as a destabilization of the ground left behind, which can result in erosion and debris flow. On a global level, the melting of glaciers contributes to rising sea levels.
In 1817, English Romantic authors Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley published a travel narrative of their trip through France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland. The text includes poetic descriptions of Switzerland's glaciers and a poignant, if false, belief in their longevity.
"It is agreed by all, that the snow on the summit of Mont Blanc and the neighboring mountains perpetually augments, and that ice, in the form of glaciers, subsists without melting in the valley of Chamouni during its transient and variable summer," they wrote. "If the snow which produces this glacier must augment, and the heat of the valley is no obstacle to the perpetual existence of such masses of ice as have already descended into it, the consequence is obvious; the glaciers must augment and will subsist, at least until they have overflowed this vale."
Contrary to Shelley's words, the heat of the valley has proved an obstacle, and perpetual existence is an impossibility. "The death of this ice cave can be foreseen," said Nussbaumer, referring to the beloved — albeit blanket-covered — portion of the Rhone glacier. "It's only a question of time."