Where there was still a white layer of snow at this time last year, this year the bare ice is glistening blue-grey and criss-crossed by gurgling rivulets of water: the German glaciers, which are already dwindling, are currently suffering from an extreme meltdown.
“2022 will go down as a record year, that’s for sure,” says glaciologist Olaf Eisen from the Alfred Wegener Institute, the Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research. “The only question is: How much worse will it be than in the previous record year 2003?”
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There are still five glaciers in Germany, they are in Bavaria: the northern and southern Schneeferner and the Höllentalferner, all three of which are on the Zugspitze massif. There is also the blue ice and the Watzmann glacier in the Berchtesgaden Alps.
Last year, a panel of experts reduced its forecast of the remaining time for the glaciers from 30 to just around ten years – but now it could be even faster.
The southern Schneeferner could disappear first. “It has melted and shrunk extremely,” says Christoph Mayer from the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, describing the situation. It could even be that the glacier will be gone by the end of the year. “There’s almost nothing left.”
Wilfried Hagg from Munich University of Applied Sciences summed up his visit to the area at the beginning of August: “It really is a very poor remnant. If the temperatures are still high for two months, I’m not sure whether it will survive this year.”
According to Mayer’s measurements, the melt throughout the Alps this year is probably around 50 percent stronger than in an average year. The experts see three reasons for the situation in the Alps: Firstly, it snowed little in most regions last winter. Bavaria is an exception with only a small minus. On the other hand, this summer is very sunny and hot and there are no typical cold fronts.
“So far we haven’t had a single real cold snap with precipitation or snowfall at high altitudes, which usually slows down the glacier melt for a few days up to a week once or twice a summer,” explains Mayer.
But the main factor, as all three glaciologists agree, is something else: the Sahara dust, which was deposited on the glaciers in a reddish-brown color, especially when it appeared in March. “As a result, the snow melts away much faster,” explains Mayer. The reason: when solar radiation hits a bright snow surface, 90 percent is reflected. The dust is darker and absorbs more energy, which it releases to the snow as heat. In addition, it sticks to the moist snow so that the wind does not remove it.
Hagg was able to see what that means with his own eyes recently at the southern Schneeferner. “The protective snow cover on the Zugspitze was gone a month earlier. The glacier has been melting since mid-June instead of mid/late July,” he reports on his excursion. Six weeks earlier means around half the additional time that the glacier is exposed to the sun without protection.
“A summer like this, which is exceptional throughout the Alps, has certainly not happened since the 1960s,” emphasizes Hagg. “If more such years occur, the lifespan of the glacier will be shortened even more than we predicted because we did not take such extreme years into account when making the forecast.”
“What we see with the Bavarian glaciers, we also see in Austria, in Switzerland, France, Italy,” sums up Eisen. Everywhere the melt has progressed six to eight weeks. “That means we are now in a state that normally occurs at the end of summer just before the first snowfall.” According to Eisen, it is even to be feared that the so-called equilibrium line this year will drop from mostly around 3200 meters to an unprecedented 3500 to 3500 meters climb 3800 meters.
The equilibrium line divides the glaciers into a zone in which more snow is registered than melt, the feeding area, and the zone below, in which there is more melt than snow, the feeding area. If this line actually shifts upwards in this way, the snow from last winter will only survive this summer on the very highest mountains in the Alps.
“This means that the glaciers will lose a great deal of mass this year,” says Eisen. “If this continues in the next few years, which we assume based on climate change forecasts, it means that the glaciers below 3500 meters will disappear.”
What may only cause non-climbers to shrug their shoulders has enormous consequences for the inhabitants of the Alps. Just one example: the glaciers are currently bringing the snow from the winter into the summer as water. If they no longer do this one day soon, this can mean that there is only little water available in the valleys in hot, dry summers.