February 7, 2023

Such ice formations are a unique time capsule.

Jumping from rock to rock to rock over a creek formed at Austria’s Jamtal Glacier, scientist Andrea Fischer worries that precious scientific data will be irreversibly lost if snow and ice melt faster than ever.

“I could not have imagined that it would ever melt as dramatically as this summer… Our ‘archive’ is melting,” says the glaciologist.

Fischer — vice director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences — has spent more than 20 years surveying Jamtal and four other Alpine glaciers across Austria’s highest peaks for the oldest ice fields.

For scientists looking to reconstruct Earth’s climate in the distant past, such ice formations are a unique time capsule stretching back thousands of years.

The glaciers hold a treasure trove of invaluable data — as they grew, the ice encased twigs and leaves, which can now be carbon dated, Fischer explains.

And based on the age of such material and the depth at which it was found, scientists can deduce when ice grew during colder periods, or when warmer conditions caused it to melt.

But now the glaciers are melting rapidly — including those in the remote and narrow Jamtal Valley, not far from where tourists found Oetzi’s astonishingly well-preserved 5,300-year-old mummy, the Iceman, in the 1990s.

Temperatures in Europe’s highest mountains have risen nearly two degrees Celsius in the past 120 years — nearly double the global average, according to the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA).

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The Alps’ roughly 4,000 glaciers have since become one of the most striking signs of global warming.

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“If this continues, the Jamtal Glacier will no longer be a glacier in five years,” says scientist Andrea Fischer.

Completely disappear?

The Jamtal Glacier loses about a meter (three feet) of surface every year, but this year it has already lost more than a meter, Fischer says.

“And we still have at least two months of summer left…where the glacier is fully exposed to the sun,” she warns.

Snow usually protects most of the glacial ice from the sun until September, but the bit of snow that fell last winter had already melted by early July.

“This year is outrageous compared to the average of the past 6,000 years,” says Fischer.

“If this continues, the Jamtal Glacier will no longer be a glacier in five years.”

By the end of summer, Fischer fears that about seven meters of surface depth will have melted — or about 300 years of climate records.

“We need the data the glaciers hold to understand the climate of the past — and to build models of what awaits us in the future,” she says.

Fischer and her team drilled into the Jamtal as well as other nearby glaciers to extract data, taking ice samples up to 14 meters deep.

As temperatures rise and glaciers become more unstable, they are forced to take additional safety measures: 11 people died in a glacial ice avalanche in Italy’s Dolomites in July, the day after temperatures rose to new records.

In Galtuer, the closest village to the Jamtal glacier, the Alpine Club already offers a "Goodbye, Glacier!"  tour

In Galtuer, the closest village to the Jamtal glacier, the Alpine Club already offers a “Goodbye, glacier!” tour.

‘My heart is bleeding’

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In Galtuer, the closest village to Jamtal with 870 inhabitants largely dependent on tourism, the Alpine Club already offers a “Goodbye, glacier!” tour the once ice-filled valley to raise awareness about the effects of climate change.

Where the ice has receded, scientists found that within three years, about 20 species of plants, mostly mosses, took over. Larchs grow in some areas, according to Fischer.

“If the glacier is gone in five years, that’s a shame because it’s part of the landscape,” said Sarah Mattle, head of the Alpine Club.

“But then there will also be new trails, and maybe there will be an easier walk over the mountains than over the ice. It will all be a matter of adapting,” adds the 34-year-old.

Other local residents, such as Gottlieb Lorenz, whose great-grandfather was the first manager of the 2,165-meter-high Jamtal hut that was set up as a refuge for mountaineers, is heartbroken.

“My heart bleeds when I think about how beautiful and mighty the glacier was and what a miserable little heap it is today,” says the 60-year-old.

He points to an 1882 black-and-white photograph of a thick ice sheet flowing past the cabin.

Today the ice is a 90 minute walk away.

Mountain melting hatches classic Alpine routes

© 2022 AFP