At first it wasn't very big news when two hikers in the Italian alps discovered the body of a man partly frozen into a glacier. At first it was thought to be the body of a contemporary hiker because the body was so well preserved; however, it became a big news story when it was revealed that the "Ice Man" had been preserved by the glacier for 5000 years. The Ice Man had died before the Pyramids of Egypt had been built!
The message of the "Ice Man" was that the climate of the alpine regions of central Europe had been consistently cold enough to preserve a body for five millennia. (Hall, 2007)
However, alpine glaciers as well as glaciers from around the world are signaling the fact that 5000 years of a reliably cold climate in the world's mountains is becoming warmer and has been warming for many decades.
In western Switzerland, about 30 minutes by airplane from where the "Ice Man" was found is the small village of Furka in the Swiss Oberwald, the town nearest the Rhône glacier, the source for both Lake Geneva and the Rhône River. In the image to the right is the Rhône Glacier as it was in 1880.
Tourists like Jean-Pierre Guignard have been coming to Furka for more than a century to view the Rhône glacier. Jean-Pierre first visited Furka in 1955 when he was sixteen. In 2015, when he returned, then seventy-six, Jean-Pierre compared what he had seen as a teen with what he saw in 2015, "It has been heart-breaking to see the glacier shrink, and today, it is really painful." The image to the left was taken in 2005, with the retreat of the glacier superimposed on the image.
In the small village of Gleisch, down the glacier-carved valley, there is a post marking the limit of the ice in 1858. The distance is now 1,400 km, or nearly a mile.
One of the highlights of a visit to Furka is to visit the "ice grotto" in the Rhône glacier.
Unfortunately, since the warmer climate threatens the grotto's existence, the Swiss Environmental Agency financed the installation of a large white blanket to protect the grotto during the summer. (Larson, 2015)
The Swiss have long recognized the importance of glaciers. Swiss glaciers serve as a source for drinking water, the production of hydroelectric power, and they can be a flood hazard. They also play an important role in attracting tourist dollars (actually Swiss Francs) to the country.
For over a century, the Swiss have kept detailed records about the state of their glaciers. These data are important to research about the process of growth and decay of glaciers; to indicate climate trends, as well as to help with the development and validation of climate models.
The top bar graph portion of the chart to the right indicates the number of measurements taken from 1880 to 2016. The bottom portion shows the fluctuation of individual glacier length over the same period. Red shows annual glacier retreat while blue shows annual glacier advance. The chart covers the period of 1880-2016.
The story of the Rhône glacier is obviously typical of what is happening to Swiss glaciers. Glaciology research is one of many lines of research that demonstrate that increasing their size along with their sensitivity to temperature changes make glaciers excellent indicators of changes in climate over long periods of time. The glacier in which Ice Man was found reflected the alpine climate that has been stable for at least 5000 years.
The Rhône glacier's retreat (nearly a mile) since 1858 provides a vivid representation of the increasing warmth of the planet as described by the Fourth National Climate Assessment. (Wuebbles, D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart and T.K. Maycock, 2017)
What is occurring in Switzerland represents a world-wide phenomenon.
The Repeat Photography project of the US Geological Survey has collected images of North American glaciers at different moments in time; early in the twentieth century and the same glacier photographed from the same position in times closer to our own. These repeat photos provide spectacular evidence of the effects of world-wide warming.
The image to the right is another USGS image showing the reduction of the Chaney Glacier in Montana. Between 1966 and 2005, the glacier lost nearly 30% of its surface area as shown by the outlines.
Hall, S. S. (2007). The Last Hours of the Iceman. The National Geographic. Retrieved from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/07/iceman/hall-text
Larson, N. Blankets cover Swiss glacier in vain. Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2015-09-blankets-swiss-glacier-vain-effort.html
National Climate Assessment (2017). Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I. Washington, DC: U.S. Global Change Research Program. doi:10.7930/J0J964J6
Repeat Photography Project, United States Geological Survey
Image sources :
Rhône Glacier in 1880 : Source: https://pixabay.com/en/rhone-glacier-glacier-19-century-1234339/.
Rhône Glacier in 2005 : Source : http://worldresource.blogspot.com/2009/10/alpine-glaciers-in-retreat.html
The protective blanket over the Ice Grotto : Source : https://phys.org/news/2015-09-blankets-swiss-glacier-vain-effort.html
Chart of Glacier length variation. Source: http://glaciology.ethz.ch/messnetz/lengthvariation.html
Chaney Glacier, https://prd-wret.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/assets/palladium/production/s3fs-public/styles/atom_page_medium/public/thumbnails/image/Graphic_series_Chaney20150822_7x7.jpg?itok=cwcGl2Ma
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.