SAVE THE GLACIER!
1st June 2017 | Jane Peel, Chief Reporter
The pilot project is pumping a layer of man-made snow over the ice to try to prevent melting and reverse the damage caused by climate change.
If it’s successful it’s thought it could eventually result in the glacier beginning to grow again.
Morteratsch, not far from St Moritz, covers around 16 square kilometres.
In common with other alpine glaciers, it’s been shrinking at an alarming rate.
According to Professor Hans Oerlemans, the scientist who came up with the idea, it has retreated 550 metres since 2000, and a total of 2700 metres since 1860.
The experiment is being conducted on the smaller, neighbouring glacier of Diavolezza, to determine whether artificial snow might save Morteratsch.
Hans Oerlemans has been commissioned by locals in the village of Pontresina, who fear the loss of a major tourist attraction.
The trip to their glacier is one of the most frequented hikes in Switzerland since it’s easily accessible by road and train.
Morteratsch also offers the longest downhill glacier ski run in Switzerland – a 10km route which starts on Diavolezza.
Oerlemans, who is Director of the Institute of Marine and Atmospheric Research in Utrecht, says the major effect of the snow is the reflection of sunlight.
“As long as there’s snow on top, the ice beneath is unaffected,” he told a meeting of the European Geosciences Union in April.
This summer’s pilot project will test the impact the artificial snow has on the Diavolezza glacier, using melt-water drawn from a natural lake.
The idea is partly inspired by the success of a long-running glacier protection project on Diavolezza.
Around mid-May each year, it is covered by a sheet of white fleece, protecting the snow from melting and saving some of the winter snowpack for the next ski season.
The fleece is removed around mid-October.
“This method has been applied now for more than 10 years, and the glacier has thickened by about 10 metres,” Oerlemans says.
But he says it is impossible to use the same technique on a glacier the size of Morteratsch. Hence, the idea to use man-made snow.
He says the best option might be to maintain an artificial snow cover throughout the summer on a small part of the Morteratsch glacier, where the ice has reduced.
Oerlemans, who is working on the project with Felix Keller, a Swiss glacialogist, says model simulations show it is possible to maintain a summer snow cover between 2300m and 2600m.
It’s not the first time snowmaking has been used to preserve glaciers, but this project’s goal is ambitious and is not simply about ensuring skiing can continue.
Oerlemans believes the technique could lead to the Morteratsch glacier regaining up to 800 metres of its length in 20 years.
But for that to happen they would need some 4,000 snow-making machines, the money to fund it, and a lot of water.
The scientific process of making snow:
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