A Farewell to Ice (1995)

This story of mine, about the rapid retreat of iconic glaciers that long defined life in the Swiss Alps, was originally published in Conde Nast Traveler in May, 1995, but is — of course — as relevant as ever.

The Aletsch Glacier in 1979, 1991 and 2002 — Creative Commons

In 1818, the farmers who ranged cattle on the steep mountainsides above Brig, a small town in southern Switzerland, organized a religious procession to deter a looming catastrophe. They marched from the church up a steep valley to the Aletsch, the largest glacier in the Alps. The 16-mile-long river of ice, 3,000 feet deep at its center, was fed by the endless snows falling on the two-mile-high ramparts of the Aletschhorn, Jungfrau, Munch, and adjacent peaks. Through more than a century of unusually cold weather, glaciers throughout Europe had been advancing steadily, and now the great, grinding mass of the Aletsch was uprooting a forest and threatening to overwhelm the farmers’ summer cottages and cow pastures. Priests led the way to the glacier’s gravel-encrusted snout. They prayed for divine intervention. A tall wooden cross was planted in the earth to turn back the ice.

The march to the glacier evolved into an annual rite. Finally, around 1865, the forces of nature complied. The cold spell, later dubbed the Little Ice Age, ended. The Aletsch began to retreat.

These days, in an ironic turnabout, some residents of Brig and surrounding alpine communities are quietly praying for the Aletsch to come back.

Once the glacier began to withdraw, it never stopped. The ice has melted back more than a mile into the mountains from the spot where the cross was planted. It has lost more than 600 feet of thickness in places, and is still shrinking about 11 feet a year. The Aletsch is not alone. All told, the Swiss Alps have lost 50 percent of the mass of glacial ice that was there 130 years ago. And the melting continues.

The story of the farmers and the Aletsch was told to me by Marcus Aellen, a glaciologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, which sits on a hill overlooking the tourist-clogged alleys along the banks of Zurich’s Limmat River. No one knows glaciers better than the Swiss. Since the mid-1800s the country has been scientifically monitoring its ice. And no Swiss knows the Aletsch better than Aellen. For 30 years, he has been clambering in, on, and around the mass of ice, studying the glacier’s anatomy and behavior as closely as if it were a living creature.

In his office on the fourth floor of the Institute’s Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology, and Glaciology, Aellen tugged at the woolly gray beard that framed his face as he recalled watching the subject of a lifetime of research melt away. “I remember a place where, in the first year I was working on Aletsch, 1962, we climbed off the glacier onto a natural platform in the rocks,” he said. “The ice was even with the surface of this platform. The next year, we had to climb up a few meters. From year to year, the ice surface sunk lower and lower. Now it has completely gone at that point. The rock plateau is one hundred meters above the bottom of the valley.”

Aellen pointed to two photographs on his wall that vividly illustrated the change. A panoramic black and white shot, taken in the 1870s from the top of a peak called Eggishorn, shows the glacier wrapping around the shoulders of two mountains like a long white scarf. Beneath that image was a Hockney-like assemblage of Aellen’s own snapshots, taken from the same spot in 1977. The glacier is a shadow of its former self — shrunken and gritty. At one spot where farmers once were able to lead their cows across the ice to summer pastures on the opposite slopes, cliffs and chasms are exposed, making passage impossible. Hundreds of feet up on the steep sides of the valley, like a dirty bathtub ring, a rim of rubble — a moraine — marks the highest level reached by the ice.

The retreat of the glaciers might be seen simply as an inconvenience to Swiss dairy farmers and glaciologists were it not for the fact that the same trend is being noted in mountain glaciers around the globe. In a few places, especially where glaciers are close to the moisture of the sea and thus nourished by frequent snows, the ice is advancing. But overall, from Peru to New Zealand, from Kenya to Indonesia, from Canada to China, independent research teams have sounded a chorus of alarms as ice caps and serpentine valley glaciers dwindle at a pace unprecedented in thousands of years.

Until recently, Aellen said, the accelerating melting of glaciers was presumed to be the result of some natural fluctuation in the ever-changing global climate. Ever since the planet descended into a cycle of ice ages and warm intervals 2 million years ago, glaciers have surged and ebbed like a slow, cold tide. One convenient reminder of that process is Long Island, whose gravelly hump is a terminal moraine left behind by the last great glacier to crawl south over New York and New England — a glacier that stopped its advance just 15,000 years ago. At that time, 3,000 feet of ice scoured the bedrock of what is now Manhattan. Zurich and Geneva lay under 1,000 feet or more of ice.

These days, however, glaciologists and climatologists are finding that the rapid rate of glacial melting may not be so comfortably explained. It is increasingly likely, scientists are saying, that the loss of ice is an early signal that human activities have turned up the global thermostat. Since the Industrial Revolution, the burning of coal, oil, and forests has added several hundred billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, raising the concentration of this gas by 25 percent in a little over a century. Carbon dioxide acts something like the glass panes in a greenhouse, allowing sunlight in to heat the Earth, but preventing some of that heat from escaping into space.

Sometime in the middle of the next century, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air is expected to double from pre-industrial times. Computer models have projected that this amplified greenhouse effect may push the average temperature of the planet up between 3 and 8 degrees Fahrenheit, resulting in sharp climate shifts that could disrupt agriculture and ecosystems and raise sea levels by speeding the melting of the greatest glaciers of all — the massive ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.
Perhaps nowhere on Earth is the shrinking of glaciers more immediately unnerving than in Switzerland herself, a nation whose territory is 60 percent alpine, whose passion is mountain sports, whose very identity is inextricably linked to its white-capped peaks. That may explain why the warren of laboratories and computer rooms inhabited by Aellen and his colleagues has become the world’s clearinghouse for data on glaciers. Aellen is part of a team of 15 scientists at the school who comprise the World Glacier Monitoring Service, an effort funded by the United Nations to monitor changes in glaciers and assess their meaning. Data flow in from satellite surveys and research projects on dozens of glaciers in 30 countries.

Down the hall from Allen, Wilfried Haeberli, the director of the Monitoring Service, handed me a copy of their latest publication, Glacier Mass Balance Bulletin №2, a compilation of new measurements. One conclusion: “At least in the Alps, where the best documentation exists, glacier shrinkage now seems to be passing at a high and possibly accelerating rate beyond the range of pre-industrial variability.” Translation? The long-awaited “signal” that humans have changed Earth’s climate may be imminent.

Pages of graphs show the rate of growth or shrinkage of glaciers around the world…. In the vast majority of graphs, the line plunges as steeply as the tracks of a downhill skier. Other pages display maps of individual glaciers, with white regions indicating the “accumulation zone,” where snow falls and adds to the mass, and gray stippled areas showing the “ablation zone,” where melting eats away at the ice. Glaciers live or die by this balance — growing when the snowfall exceeds the melt and shrinking when the opposite is true. In many cases now, Haeberli pointed out, almost the entire surface area is shaded gray. At almost every turn, ablation is overwhelming accumulation. Almost everywhere, the glaciers are dying.

The thawing is accelerating most rapidly in the few glaciers that exist on high mountains in the tropics. There, temperatures hover just below the freezing point, so that even a small rise in temperature can cause a drastic loss of ice. These glaciers are remarkably sensitive indicators of changes in the climate. A prime example, Haeberli said, is the Lewis Glacier on Mount Kenya, which is one of the best-studied tropical glaciers. I had already heard its name mentioned by Stefan Hastenrath, a climatologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, whose specialty is African glaciers. He had told me that the Lewis glacier is expected to disappear completely in the next two decades. Just since 1963, Mount Kenya has already lost 40 percent of its ice cap. The same trend is seen on Kilimanjaro and in Uganda’s Ruwenzori range. It was hard to absorb the idea that a feature of our world as familiar as the “snows of Kilimanjaro” might not be around for the next generation to marvel at.

Hastenrath had said that the loss of ice in Africa had created concern in a wide variety of circles. For climatologists, it was a potential indicator of global warming. On a far more mundane level, it had put the African mountaineering community in a deep funk. A report in the 1992 bulletin of the Climbing Society of Kenya bemoaned the demise of several classic ice-climbing routes — which had been transformed into treacherous rock climbs. I relayed to Haeberli a joke that Hastenrath said was circulating among Kenya mountaineers: “Climbers usually try to be the first to make a certain ascent. The joke these days is who’s going to be the last.”

In South America, the loss is, if anything, more dramatic. Since 1984, one glacier in the Peruvian Andes has been retreating 50 feet per year — nearly triple the melting rate recorded in the 1960s and 1970s. Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center, recently found that the current warming in the Andes exceeds any warming for at least the past 500 years. In the Sierras of Venezuela, three glaciers have vanished completely in the past 20 years. The same is true for Asia. The small glaciers in the Central Range of Irian Jaya, the Indonesian portion of New Guinea, have shrunk by well over a mile. The ice cap on 15,300-foot Puncak Trikora vanished entirely sometime between 1939 and 1972. At one glacier on the Tibetan plateau in China, Thompson recently gathered data showing that the area was warming faster than it had ever warmed in the past 12,000 years.

Thompson’s greatest concern is that the current thaw is destroying a unique repository of information on past climates that can provide crucial clues to future changes. In Peru and Tibet, Thompson has pulled long vertical columns, or cores, of ice from the hearts of glaciers. Locked in the ancient striations — each representing a winter’s accumulation of compacted snow — is a unique natural record of climatic and atmospheric conditions from decades, centuries, even millenniums past. When the ice from a certain layer is crushed — say, a layer known to be 2,000 years old — tiny bubbles of ancient air are released, the composition of which reflects the composition of the atmosphere 2,000 years ago. Trapped pollen grains show the types of vegetation that lived in the area. Layers of volcanic ash indicate past atmospheric disturbances. The ratio of two types of oxygen atoms provides an indirect temperature record. More than three dozen different factors can be analyzed.

Now, the glaciers Thompson has studied most closely, the Quelccaya in Peru and the Dunde in Tibet, are melting away so fast that no new layers are accumulating. Other glaciers will be completely gone long before any cores can be drilled. I passed another sad sort of joke on to Haeberli, this one told to me by Thompson. He said that Ohio State was accumulating an archive of sections of ice cores in a complex of huge freezers. “Pretty soon, glaciers may be like endangered wildlife,” Thompson had said. “To see a rare species, you’ll have to go to a zoo. To see a glacier, you’ll have to visit our cold room.”

Haeberli, a slim, intense man who could be a younger brother of Max von Sydow, spoke excitedly about one other recent finding that dramatically illustrated the extent of the current warm spell. It was the 1991 discovery of the “ice man,” the preserved corpse of a Bronze Age hunter that was found protruding from the top of a glacier on the Italian-Austrian border. “This man had been frozen in the ice for five thousand years,” Haeberli said. “That means that the glacier at that place has never been as much reduced as it is today. After one or two days of exposure he already would have decayed. It’s an incredible find. Incredible. This man sat down in exactly the right moment, in exactly the right place, in exactly the right snowstorm. It must have been the end of fall, perhaps. The snow that fell did not melt. It covered him for five thousand years!

“And now he is exposed for the first time. This really means we are now at the warm limit of the natural variations in climate for this period. So far, we are still within the range of natural variability, but at the very limit. Everything which comes now, during the next ten, twenty, thirty years or so, if it goes on with the same accelerating rate, it takes us into uncharted territory.”

Before I left the Monitoring Service in Zurich, I asked Haeberli to look ahead and describe the Alps as they might appear in 40 or 50 years. That is when he dropped a bombshell. “The best estimates for the next century are that Swiss glaciers will have only a few percent of the mass they had at the turn of the last century,” he said. I was not sure I had heard him right and asked him to repeat that figure. He complied. “Glaciers here will have only twenty percent of the original surface area and only one to five percent of their original mass. Because it is a rough estimate, I prefer to express it in words rather than numbers. A few percent.”

He looked over the spires and rambling rooflines of downtown Zurich toward the haze of the industrial sector and the mountains beyond. “I think this will hurt people very much. The glacier belongs to Switzerland like the cheese, the cows, the chocolate. Switzerland without glaciers, or with a few only…” He paused. “This will hurt very much. Already, people here are realizing after this decade of 1980 to 1990, which was a catastrophe for the glaciers, they are really concerned, very concerned.” He scanned the posters, snapshots, and maps on his walls — a series of craggy, icy panoramas. “Perhaps the Swiss do not love the glaciers. But they hate the idea that the glaciers will disappear. They are a source of great beauty in the mountains. And keep in mind that where the glaciers disappear there will not be a tropical forest or whatever. For decades to come, this area will look like a construction site. Full of rock, gravel, debris, moraines.

“If I follow a reasonable scenario, not an extreme one, for global warming,” said Haeberli, “I can say that we will see it here first. In other places, it may be more difficult to see the impact — on, say, changing vegetation or soils. But here, with the glaciers, this will be clear to everybody. A clear signal. My children, for instance, will very clearly know in thirty years — when they are as old as I am now — what the greenhouse effect really was all about.”

Haeberli and Aellen and their colleagues urged me to go to the Aletsch. Go to the top of Eggishorn, they said. There I would have an unequaled view of the entire expanse of the glacier. Then I would understand.

I headed south to Brig, where I watched the gleaming red Glacier Express depart for its mile-high climb up the Rhone valley to the Oberalp Pass on its way to St. Moritz. I took the local train along the same route, disembarking at M”rel along with dozens of skiers, all clunking along in their bulky boots in a heel-toe gait not unlike a biker’s or cowboy’s. We rode a cable car 3,800 feet up into the mist and snow that hid the wall of the Pennine Alps, emerging at the ski resort of Riederalp, which was perched on a shelf on the Rhone side of the mountain range.

Just over the ridge to the north was the Aletsch. But the dense fog and snow kept it hidden for the first day. I bided my time by dining on “glacier food,” a heavy blend of noodles, cheese, and potatoes, and sipping gletscherwasser, glacier water, a licorice-like apperatif. Like pernod or ouzo, it turned milky when water was added. A resident of Riederalp explained that that was why it was named for the glaciers’ silty runoff.

The next morning broke bright and sunny. By midday, all the snow that had fallen in the last 24 hours had melted and the fields were rapidly turning to mud. In the endless tug of war between accumulation and ablation, today ablation won. In the thin air, the sun had extraordinary power. By late in the day, several skiers, some of whom had doffed their Mylar tights and shirts, had burned bright red.
There was one more cable car to take to reach Eggishorn — another 3,000 feet in altitude. Passengers were deposited on the narrow ridge separating the Rhone valley, which was already greening with the first blush of spring, from the white, frozen domain of the Aletsch. In every direction, sawtoothed peaks rose into the blue sky. Mont Blanc was clearly visible 90 miles to the southwest. The Matterhorn jutted skyward nearby. Off the impossibly steep slope to the south, the colorful wings of three hang gliders glinted in the sun, and thousands of feet beneath them lay the faint silver ribbon of the Rhone. A delicate red cord strung between striped posts seemed to be all that separated the gaggle of tourists and skiers on the mountaintop from eternity. On one of the posts hung a bright sign that read, “Attention: Here you are leaving the controlled skiing-region.” Never had a warning seemed so redundant.

I waited at the top to rendezvous with another sort of expert on the Aletsch, a man named Art Furrer. Furrer had grown up on the slopes of Eggishorn and its neighbors when the dominant activity was still cheese making. He and his alps had changed dramatically. At 57, Furrer was a ski celebrity, a former national champion acrobatic skier who had spent years teaching at resorts in the United States and Europe. Now Eggishorn and the slopes all around were one sprawling ski resort, a big chunk of which belonged to Furrer. He owned five chalets and hotels in Riederalp and three more nearby. Two or three times a week in summer, Furrer led hikes across the Aletsch. Year round, he took wealthy skiers by helicopter up onto the highest reaches of the glacier to test themselves on untrammeled powder.

Furrer, easily picked out by his trademark cowboy hat, disembarked from the next cable car with three Dayglo-clad ski-shop owners. He was going to lead them on a schuss straight down the mountain beyond the warning sign to try out some new skis. As I peered over the precipice, I felt thankful that I had given up downhill skiing when I was 14.

We walked the few steps to the north side of the ridge. There we faced the exact tableau captured by the photographs on Marcus Aellen’s wall back in Zurich. Because it was early spring, the Aletsch was still coated in fresh snow from its source to its snout, so the stripes of gravel and the moraines on the slopes were somewhat hidden. High on the sheer faces of the Jungfrau, Aletschhorn, and Munch, the sun gleamed on the snowfields that kept the Aletsch alive. The compressed snows flowed together at a great bowl-like intersection called Konkordiaplatz. Haeberli and Aellen had stressed that that spot, several thousand feet deep, would resist even the most extreme global warming.

From there, the ancient ice swept down the valley along the north face of Eggishorn. The surface was riffled and corrugated like a wild river frozen in time. But even this frozen river was on the move. Almost two feet a day at the fastest points, the ice was snaking its way down the deeply excavated valley toward its eventual doom. Waving a ski pole along the glacier, Furrer said, “You can see what we have lost in ice.” He pointed to a high hanging valley across the way, where a side glacier once added its bulk to the Aletsch. “It’s gone, completely gone.”

Furrer’s family had subsisted on the bounty of the mountains and ice for generations, hunting in the larch and spruce forests and keeping pastures green by diverting glacial meltwater all the way around the mountain with sluices and channels. By the 1930s, the glacier had sunk too low to supply water for the high alpine meadows. “The water was so important the people called it `holy water,’” he said. Many men died building those channels.

His father, like many poor mountain residents, went off to work digging tunnels from Switzerland’s train network. “Like all the tunnel workers, he got granite powder into his lungs,” Furrer said. “He knew he was dying, so he taught me and my brothers all that he knew about nature, about the glacier, how it lives, how it was shrinking through his whole lifetime. At the moment, because of the warm temperatures, there is much more heat to eat the ice. So even though we still get snow, the glacier loses.”

Displaying a certain Swiss pragmatism, he said, “My basic opinion is it’s a change in creation, and everybody — humans, animals, plants — will have to adapt. They will adapt. They always have. Business-wise, we will adapt also. Skiing may become more exclusive, maybe, because it will only be possible in a few spots. We’ll have more summer sports. Hiking. People will come for the sunshine, the flowers.”

I told Furrer about Haeberli’s prediction of a Switzerland virtually bereft of glaciers sometime in the next few decades. His optimism waned slightly. “This glacier has become a part of me. If you follow the same path every day — like I do when I take people onto the ice — for awhile it’s boring. But eventually, it becomes a habit of your life. You start to love it. Like an animal that follows the same path, a chamois or a cow or a rabbit. If I don’t hike on the glacier for a few days, I miss it. If I couldn’t go to it anymore at all, I’d miss it very, very much.”

Furrer shielded his goggles with a gloved hand and squinted up at the sun, which seemed close enough to grasp. “Last summer, I felt like the glacier lost twenty meters,” he said. “So in the next ten years, if that keeps up, we could lose the same amount of ice that we lost in one-hundred thirty years. That’s not a professional estimate. For that you need to check with the scientists. But right now, it’s clear, everything is out of balance.”

With that, he turned and joined his friends. They crouched and slid under the red cord past the warning. Furrer led the way, seeming to drop into space. Somehow his skis adhered to the snow. In a puff of powder, he was gone.

Pursuing progress on a finite planet at @columbia @earthinstitute. The rest? Family, friends, books j.mp/revkinbooks, songs j.mp/revkinmusic

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