In Austria, the lost memory of retreating glaciers

Over the course of global warming, "our archives are disappearing", she worries, while examining the ice at her feet which, in some places, mixes with the earth, giving the landscape a grayish appearance.

In Austria, the lost memory of retreating glaciers

Over the course of global warming, "our archives are disappearing", she worries, while examining the ice at her feet which, in some places, mixes with the earth, giving the landscape a grayish appearance.

For more than 20 years, Ms. Fischer has been scrutinizing Jamtal and other glaciers in the Tyrolean mountain region.

In these unique time capsules, stretching back thousands of years, she and her team regularly take ice cores.

They can then date them by carrying out carbon-14 measurements on plant debris that has remained imprisoned over time.

The analysis of the different layers makes it possible to "understand the climate of the past and create models for the future", explains the researcher.

- Seven meters lost -

A task which is however becoming more and more complex for the deputy director of the Innsbruck Mountain Research Institute, attached to the Academy of Sciences.

Because melting, an indicator of climate change, has accelerated in the past 20 years, according to a study published in Nature in April 2021.

Of the 220,000 glaciers on the planet, the 4,000 located in the Alps have particularly shrunk and most are doomed to evaporate.

"This year is insane compared to the average of the last 6,000 years," says Andrea Fischer. "At this rate, Jamtal will no longer be a glacier in five years."

It even had to bring forward a drilling operation at a depth of 14 meters by a few days, in view of the exceptionally high temperatures.

Normally, the snow protects the glacier from the sun during the summer, but the few flakes that fell last winter had already disappeared by the beginning of July.

"The glacier is therefore fully exposed to the sun for two months", underlines the scientist.

The impact for research is devastating: Ms. Fischer predicts a loss of seven meters of ice this year, against one meter usually, "which corresponds to the analysis of 300 years of climate change" gone up in smoke.

- "My heart bleeds" -

The situation also creates additional risks due to heat waves which make the terrain unstable - such as at the Marmolada glacier in Italy, where a huge block collapsed in July, killing eleven people.

Not to mention the other repercussions: beyond their vital economic role in attracting tourists, Austrian glaciers feed large rivers in summer and contribute to the hydraulic network.

In the nearby village of Galtür, which has 870 inhabitants, the Alpine Club has taken the lead and already offers a hike called "Goodbye, glacier!" to try to raise awareness about global warming.

Its manager Sarah Mattle evokes a feeling of "seriousness" of visitors "when they really become aware of what they hear and see in the media".

When the ice disappears, it certainly gives way in a few years to about twenty different species of plants, mainly mosses.

This is an opportunity to discover "new, more accessible hiking trails", also adds the 34-year-old mountaineer.

However, like many Austrians emotionally attached to their glaciers, Gottlieb Lorenz cannot accept the idea.

His great-grandfather was the first manager of the Jamtal refuge, located at 2,165 meters above sea level.

"My heart bleeds when I think of past magnificence," says the sixty-year-old, showing a photo from 1882 where the chalet appears surrounded by a thick white layer.

Today, you have to walk 1 hour and a half before reaching the ice.

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