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Two catastrophic years obliterate 10% of Swiss glacier volume

Swiss glaciers are melting fast because of the climate crisis
Swiss glaciers are melting fast because of the climate crisis

Glaciers in Switzerland lost 6% of their volume in 2022. Then 2023 saw a further 4% destroyed, representing the second largest decline since measurements began, says research from the Swiss Academy of Sciences.

The Swiss Commission for Cryosphere Observation of the Swiss Academy of Sciences reported that a total of 10% of the ice volume disappeared in only two years.

Swiss glaciers are melting at a rapidly increasing rate, says the report. The acceleration is dramatic, with as much ice being lost in only two years as between 1960 and 1990. The two extreme consecutive years have led to glacier ‘tongues’ collapsing and the disappearance of many smaller glaciers.

For example, measurements of the St. Annafirn glacier in the canton of Uri had to be suspended as a result.

This massive loss of ice is the result of a winter with very low volumes of snow followed by high temperatures during the summer. The melting of glaciers affected the whole of Switzerland, with glaciers in the south and east of the country melting almost as severely as in the record year of 2022.

Melting of several metres was recorded in southern Valais and the Engadin valley at a level above 3,200 metres, an altitude at which glaciers had until recently preserved their equilibrium. The average ice thickness loss here is up to three metres and is considerably higher than the values recorded in the hot summer of 2003.

Barely any precipitation was evident in the winter of 2022 / 2023 on both sides of the Alps, and temperatures were very high. As a consequence, considerably less snow than usual was evident at all stations. Conditions at a level above 1,000 metres stand out in February and the beginning of March.

Snow depths measured in the first half of February were mostly somewhat greater than in the winters of 1964, 1990 or 2007, all characterised by low snowfalls. However, snow levels dropped to a new record low in the second half of February 2023, reaching only about 30% of the long-term average. More than half the automated stations above 2,000 metres with a minimum of 25 years of measurement series also indicated new record minimum levels.

The situation normalised briefly in spring, but a dry and extremely warm June meant that snow melted 2-4 weeks earlier than usual. The third-warmest summer since measurements began and a record high zero-degree line at times, which continued into September, were responsible for individual summer snowfalls generally melting very rapidly, which did not help the situation on the glaciers, said the academy researchers.