Why are scientists wrapping glaciers in plastic?
Europe's Alps could lose three-quarters of their glaciers to climate change during the coming century.
That is the conclusion of new research from the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) in Zurich. BBC - 'Major melt' for Alpine glaciers
In an experiment to find a way of reducing melt rate, scientists last year, covered 3,000 square metres of the Gurschen glacier with a half-inch thick PVC coating.
The Swiss glacier has been retreating at an alarming rate in recent decades. It was hoped that the plastic covering will reflect more of the sun’s rays, thereby reducing the rate at which the ice mass melts and recedes.
In nature, thick gravel coatings have the same effect, and scientists were hoping to copy this process.
However, while this may help reduce the rate of ice melting in Switzerland, can anything be done on a larger scale to stop the loss of Antarctic ice?
And if the plan failed, what is the future for Europe’s skiing industry?
What is the Gurschen plan to cover a glacier in plastic?
Does it work?
Why do glaciers advance and retreat?
What is the Antarctic problem?
A troubled future for snow sports?
Can the UK skiing industry survive climate change?
AS and A-level essay assignment titles and exam tips
A Swiss ski resort has a novel solution to the problems posed by global warming: they wrap up their glacier in plastic.
When the winter ski season ends in May, more than 3,000 square metres (32,000 square feet) of the Gurschen glacier is covered with insulating PVC foam.
It is hoped that this will protect the surface layers from heat and rain, halting the recession of the glacier during the summer when rates of ablation (melting) are highest.
The PVC foam costs £45,000, but can be stored during winter and reused each year (The Daily Telegraph, 02 April 2005).
The area in question lies above the Swiss resort of Andermatt, one of many European skiing destinations now experiencing long-term worries over economic sustainability.
In a recent press release, Andermatt ski resort managers explain the Gurschen glacier has lost about 20 metres of ice since 1990. In fact, since 1850 the Swiss Alps have lost more than 100 glaciers.
The surface of the remaining glaciers has shrunk by a third. Their volume is now half of what it was 150 years ago (for example, the Tschierva Glacier has receded by more than 1,100 metres in the last century).
Geographers at Zurich University predict that within the next 30 years, 70 per cent of all of Switzerland's remaining glaciers will have disappeared due to global warming.
It is not just Switzerland that is affected. The snow line (the height above which permanent snow is found) is currently retreating all over Europe, with similar reports coming in from Germany, Austria and Italy. Hintereisferner Glacier in Austria and the Sarennes Glaciers in France have both lost 14 metres in thickness since 1960.
If current trends continue, then skiing and snow-boarding could in future become restricted to just a handful of very high-altitude resorts.
Desperate times therefore call for desperate measures – or at least highly innovative ones.
The Swiss hope that the PVC foam applied to the surface of the Gurschen glacier will mimic a naturally-occurring effect that slows down the rate of ice melting.
The surfaces of glaciers often become coated with a thick mantle of rock debris known as moraine.
This is material that has fallen from the steep valley sides above the surface of the ice, usually after being loosened by a weathering process known as frost wedging (or freeze-thaw action).
It acts an insulating blanket, protecting the ice from the sun’s rays and considerably lowering rates of ablation.
Other Swiss resorts, including Saas-Fee and Engelberg-Titlis, are apparently considering similar measures.
Will PVC foam coating solve the problem of glacial recession in Europe and elsewhere?
Will places like Andermatt that rely heavily on ski-related tourism for their income be able to face the future more securely?
The environmental campaigning organisation World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) is not so sure.
They claim that during the exceptionally hot and dry summer of 2003, 10 percent of the total ice volume of Alpine glaciers melted.
So the new measures are barely likely to hold the line against future recession. On their website, WWF also suggest that:
“There’s a certain amount of irony in the solution put forward by the Andermatt authorities. Although the use of petroleum for PVC production is comparatively more moderate than in other types of plastic, PVC production implies the use of chlorine, with toxic by-products and dioxin emissions that represent a huge environmental and health hazard”.
WWF believe that what the Andermatt proposal really tells us is just how locally expensive and unsustainable global warming is becoming!
One year on – did the PVC glacier experiment work?
According to Andreas Bauder, one of the consultants on the project last summer:
"To summarize first impressions: There was not much Snow accumulation during the previous winter, which melted away completely during summer. In a covered test area the melt was reduced substantially, resulting in a substantial amount of firn accumulation. Melt rate was about 1/3 relative to the surrounding. The site is at the headwall of the glacier an area where you should have accumulation to ensure a healthy stability of the dynamical system."
A glacier is a system with inputs (snowfall and avalanches) and outputs (melt-water and evaporation / sublimation).
If the rate of accumulation (new inputs) is equal to the rate of ablation (outputs) then the glacier is in an overall state of balance.
Of course, there is some variability over the year, especially in high altitude Alpine glaciers, with more accumulation in the winter and markedly more ablation in the summer.
Over the year as whole, however, inputs and outputs are balanced. The glacial budget – the sum of inputs and outputs – is said to be in a state of dynamic equilibrium.
This means that it is a steady state in the long-term, with minor short-term seasonal fluctuations occurring.
However, this balance can become more seriously disrupted over longer time-scales.
For instance, if annual rates of accumulation begin to exceed annual ablation rates, then the glacier’s total ice mass will increase and it will advance down-valley under gravity.
However, if the reverse occurs and annual totals of ablation begin to exceed fresh accumulation, then the ice mass will begin to waste and shrink, causing the snout (end) of the glacier to appear to retreat up-slope. (Of course, the existing body of ice is still physically moving down-slope under gravity. But at the snout end, it is now melting faster than it can be replaced by new throughputs of ice moving down-valley.)
Sunspot activity The sun’s output does vary slightly between decades due to the existence of sun-spots. Cycles of eleven and twenty-two years have been suggested. High levels of sunspot activity reduce annual rates of ablation.
Volcanic eruptions The eruption of Tambora in the spring of 1815 in Indonesia is thought to have ejected an amazing 200 cubic kilometre of dust into the atmosphere. This insulated the earth from the sun’s rays, causing temperatures in the Alps to fall by 1°C, leading to a short period of glacial advance (source: Hilton).
Ice Ages On a much longer time-scale, changes in the earth’s orbit around the sun are thought to contribute to the onset of Ice Ages – periods of earth’s history where ice advances into region such as the UK that are not normally glaciated. These cycles last for tens of thousand of years or longer. First suggested by Milankovitch, these periods of orbital change trigger a series of climatic responses that result in much of the world becoming covered with ice.
Plate tectonics The uplift of the Himalayas – when the Indo-Australian plate converged with the Eurasian plate – would have upset planetary wind systems and patterns of precipitation and temperatures. (One theory even suggests that global levels of carbon dioxide were reduced at this time, due to the massive amounts of CO2 used up in carbonation weathering of the limestone Himalayan mountains as they were first elevated into a hot, wet monsoon climate. This would have put the greenhouse effect “into reverse”, cooling the whole planet!)
Global warming The world’s scientific community seems to be reaching a consensus on the problems of global warming and most scientists now believe that human use of fossil fuels has lead to a measurable global rise in temperatures and rates of ablation in glacial systems. Glaciers in Argentina and Chile are meting at double the rate of 1975 due to global warming, according to Californian researchers (The Guardian, 18 October 2003).
Antarctica contains the greatest volumes of ice found anywhere in the world.
99% of the continent is covered with ice.
The area covered by sea ice varies with the seasons from around 3 million square kilometres at the end of the summer to around 20 million square kilometres at the end of the winter.
The British Antarctic Survey has recorded that warming in the region – possibly due to natural cycles of temperature variability in the region as well as global climate change - has caused a rise of mean annual temperature of about 3ºC over the past 50 years, and the annual melt season has increased by two or three weeks over the last 20 years.
Physical changes are now clearly evident.
In March 2000, the world’s biggest iceberg, B15, broke away from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica.
200 feet high and the size of Jamaica, it split in half in October 2003. (One of the two remaining halves - a 100-mile-long iceberg known as B15A – has just collided with the tip of the 40-mile-long Drygalski Ice Tongue on the north Antarctic coast!)
Given that 70% of the earth’s fresh water is stored as ice in Antarctica, there is a clear threat of global eustatic sea level rises should Antarctica’s ice mass continue to decline.
More recently in May 2005, the worst fears about Antarctica's melting glaciers have been confirmed. The first comprehensive survey of glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula shows a widespread retreat that may be more evidence of global warming.
The mountainous Antarctic Peninsula stretches north from the icy continent towards South America. Its 244 glaciers dump their ice into the sea as icebergs.
Reporting in Science (vol 308, p 541), a team from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in Cambridge now reports that 87 per cent of Antarctic glaciers have retreated over the past 50 years.
The team looked at 2000 aerial and satellite photographs of the peninsula dating back to 1940.
Adding further to our growing list of “ice worries”, in a recent lecture at London’s Royal Geographical Society with IBG (18 May 2005), Dr David Thomas reported that both Antarctic and Arctic pack ice are becoming thinner and less expansive.
Swiss ski resort managers are seriously concerned about the effects global warming is having on local glaciers.
Are leisure activities in the Alps threatening to become unsustainable?
Skiing and snowboarding could be killed off in UK, German, Austrian, Swiss and Italian resorts, according to a recent report from UN climate scientists (The Guardian, 03 December 2003).
Lower snowfall levels and warmer temperatures could cause the snowline (the height at which there is permanent snow) to head up-slope by around 300 metres.
This is the reason why Swiss technicians are now planning on using special insulating PVC foam to wrap up parts of the Gurschen glacier, which is currently receding by about five metres a year.
Europe has many glaciers and winter snow resorts, due to the high altitude found in the Alps.
Now tourist businesses throughout the region are seeing evidence that their livelihood is under threat.
A new Zurich University study, carried out using satellite data, predicts that lower Alpine resorts across Europe will suffer severely from global warming as snowfall lessens and temperatures rise.
Many central and eastern parts of Austria are predicted to lose their winter tourist industry altogether.
Half of Italy's winter sport resorts are below 1,300 metres and will be particularly badly affected by a retreat of the snow-line (The Daily Telegraph, 02 April 2005).
Many German ski resorts are also at a relatively low level and will have to retreat up-slope or consider the use of snow-making machines.
According to the Rolf Burki’s Zurich team, a sustainable winter sports resort will pass the following test:
In seven winters out of 10, it must have at least 30-50cm of snow on at least 100 days between December 1 and April 15.
Of Switzerland’s 230 ski resorts, only 85% of these now meet this criterion and can therefore be classified as “snow-reliable”.
In the next 30 to 50 years, the number of snow-reliable ski resorts is expected to drop to 63%.
In the worst-case scenario, where the snowline rises to 1,800 metres, one resort in four would shut, resulting in tourism losses of £925m a year.
Perspectives on the threat to winter sports
The Guardian (03 December 2003) reported on the snow-line problem and invited people involved with winter sports to out-line the important decision-making issues that lie ahead for them:
Graham Bell (former Olympic skier): “Even Cairngorm and Fort William, the two biggest Scottish resorts, now make more money from summer activities than winter pursuits”.
Felice Hardy (author, Good Skiing & Snowboarding Guide): “Patches of permafrost that had lasted for a million years disappeared from glaciers in the four main skiing countries during a particularly hot weekend in August this year. Ten or 15 years ago you could have pretty much guaranteed good snow over Christmas, even in the low Austrian resorts; now my advice is that over Christmas you really need to be at 1,750 metres or higher.”
Rolf Burki (University of Zurich): “Climate change will have the effect of pushing more and more winter sports higher and higher up mountains, concentrating impacts in ever-decreasing high altitude areas. As ski resorts in lower altitudes face bankruptcy, so the pressure in highly environmentally sensitive upper-altitude areas rises, along with the pressures to build new ski lifts and other infrastructure."
Will the UK skiing industry survive climate change?
Closer to home, Glencoe (Scotland's oldest ski resort) closed during the winter of 2003, after the company running the lifts suspended operations for commercial reasons brought about by a lack of snow.
Both Glencoe and the Glenshee ski resorts are now for sale.
Some climate change experts are even predicting that the entire Scottish ski industry will cease to exist within 20 years.
According to The Guardian (14 February 2004), since the late 1980s the number of ski days enjoyed by Scottish resorts has fallen by a quarter, while the number of lift passes sold has fallen by a half.
David Viner (Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia) is reported as saying “unfortunately, it’s just getting too hot for the Scottish ski industry. It is very vulnerable to climate change; the resorts have always been marginal in terms of snow and, as the rate of climate change increases, it is hard to see a long-term future.”
Since Glencoe first opened in 1956, ski resorts have come to play a vital role in stabilising the economy of mountain and upland areas in Scotland.
For instance, Glenshee employs 11 full-time workers and more than 140 part-time and seasonal workers.
Other businesses have grown up to service this and other ski resorts and their guests, including food distributors, restaurants and taxi companies.
Local shops and services all benefit from the money spent there by tourists and well-paid ski resort staff. Ski resorts thus operate as growth poles to stimulate a local multiplier effect that was thought to have made local economies truly sustainable. If winter sports are now lost, how will these communities survive in the future?
This resource can be used to support learning for a number of AS/A2 subject areas. Suggestions are given below for assignment titles.
1.(a) Suggest reasons why glaciers advance and retreat.1.(b) Examine the consequences of glacial retreat for human activity.
2. Discuss why some types of tourism are becoming unsustainable.
Sports & leisure (Edexcel B only)
3. Discuss why some types of sporting and leisure activities are becoming unsustainable. [Key idea: sport in the future]
Synoptic / decision-making (all boards)
4.(a) Explain why winter sports resorts are under threat of closure.
4.(b) To what extent could “The Gurschen Plan” provide winter sports resorts in Europe with a sustainable future?
Written by Dr Simon Oakes (Mander Portman Woodward and senior A-level examiner)
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