Hydrology, Cryosphere & Earth Surface News

Europe’s Mightiest Glaciers Are Melting

Here’s what a century of ice melt looks like on the Alps’ highest peak.

By

When the photographer Walter Mittelholzer snapped pictures of Mont Blanc from his plane in 1919, he pointed his lens at the landscape’s rugged beauty. One century later, his images reveal the rapid loss of ice on the Alps’ highest peak.

This summer, researchers re-created Mittelholzer’s images of three Mont Blanc glaciers by photographing the glaciers 100 years later. The scientists triangulated Mittelholzer’s original location on the basis of nearby peaks and flew a helicopter to an elevation of 4,700 meters  at the same spot near the Mont Blanc summit, which straddles the border of Italy and France. Viewed side by side, the images show the drastic effect of climate change on the region.

The scientists chose three of the mountain’s largest glaciers: Argentière, Bossons, and Mer de Glace. In the photographs taken at Mer de Glace, the black-and-white image from 1919 shows a channel of ice nearly 2 kilometers wide in places flowing down a deep valley. In 2019, the glacier is sunken, covered in brown sediment, and peters out into a melt pond at what used to be the glacier’s far end.

Aerial images of Mer de Glace glacier taken in 1919 and 2019
Aerial images of Mer de Glace glacier taken in 1919 (left) and 2019 (right). Mer de Glace means “sea of ice” in French and is the largest glacier on Mont Blanc. Credit: Walter Mittelholzer, ETH-Bibliothek Zürich; Kieran Baxter, University of Dundee

University of Dundee scientist Kieran Baxter, who took the new images, said in a press release that “it was both a breathtaking and heartbreaking experience, particularly knowing that the melt has accelerated massively in the last few decades.”

The ice loss on Mont Blanc is hardly unique, said Baxter. Glaciers in the European Alps lost half their volume between 1850 and 1975, according to a study published in the Annals of Glaciology. Over the next 30 years, 40% of their remaining volume melted away.

“The ice loss visible in these pictures is representative of the type of melt that is happening to the vast majority of glaciers across the Alps and in other glaciated regions around the world,” Baxter told Eos.

Disappearing Landscape

Glaciers used to be viewed as permanent features of the landscape, said Baxter, and even Mittelholzer was more interested in mountain summits than glaciers. Now “we recognize that our actions have made [glaciers] something much more ephemeral,” Baxter said, and pointed to the example of mourners who gathered for a funeral for the Swiss Pizol glacier recently stripped of its title.

Rapidly shrinking glaciers could be hazardous as well. Mont Blanc’s Planpincieux glacier grew so unstable in September that an Italian mayor called for evacuations and road closures. A recent report from the United Nations warns that climate change will bring disasters to high mountain regions.

The three photographs are just a “tiny fraction” of Mittelholzer’s collection, said Baxter, and the researchers hope to further explore his archives. They also plan to search for photographs in personal collections that may have been overlooked.

Future projections of glaciers in the Alps are grim: Two thirds of the ice will vanish by 2100 under the best-case emissions scenario, according to a study published in April 2019. Yet if emissions continue at their current rate, more than 90% could be gone by the end of the century. No matter what humans emit, the study found that half the Alpine ice will be gone by 2050.

Aerial images of Bossons glacier taken in 1919 and 2019
Side-by-side images of Mont Blanc’s Bossons glacier in 1919 (left) and 2019 (right). Credit: Walter Mittelholzer, ETH-Bibliothek Zürich; Kieran Baxter, University of Dundee

When it comes to photography, Baxter said it’s a “race against time” to capture images before it’s too late.

“Unless we drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, there will be little ice left to photograph in another hundred years,” Baxter said in a press release.

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), News Writing and Production Fellow

21 October 2019: This article has been updated to accurately state the elevation of the photographs. 

Citation: Duncombe, J. (2019), Europe’s mightiest glaciers are melting, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO135935. Published on 21 October 2019.
Text © 2019. AGU. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.