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2018 was a terrible year for Swiss glaciers (atlasobscura.com)
111 points by Pharmakon 14 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments



> Huss says glaciers are essential to feeding Europe’s freshwater rivers, which provide drinking water to millions, especially in the summer months when there is less rainfall. “The summer is when we need the water in the lowlands.” he says, “If the glaciers are gone, this can have really serious consequences.”

The Rhine [1] is currently carrying so little water [2] that tankers can't transport normal payloads and fewer ships can travel along the river due to a very low water level. This created a situation where gas stations are empty [3] due to those logistical impairments. I wonder how exactly this might be connected to glaciers leaving.

The news are mostly covering this inconvenience from a consumer service perspective instead of linking it to climate change symptoms. It is also a good reminder for how suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere the situation can go from normal to chaos. Most people cannot imagine anything except normality (you need food? you go to a shop. you are ill? you visit the doctor. you are victim of a crime? you call the police.). Civilized normality seems rather like a very thin layer concealing the raw forces of a brutal nature.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhine

[2]: https://www.aachener-nachrichten.de/nrw-region/wasserstand-i...

[3]: https://www.waz.de/region/niederrhein/wegen-ebbe-im-rhein-ke...


The current low water level in the Rhine has nothing to do with the glaciers, the lack of water is caused by the unusually dry last couple of months.

The global warming is actually making the glaciers melt more rapidly and increasing the Rhine level a bit, but at the end of the year the water level is mostly determined by rain fall.


Indeed. The relationship is probably indirect. Warming causing receding of glaciers and also lowering water levels (stronger than than positive impact on it by melting glaciers).

I thought though that maybe melting of glaciers might reduce the sealing of water basins (lakes) serving as a source for the Rhine. Causing the water to seep into the lake bed.


> Huss says glaciers are essential to feeding Europe’s freshwater rivers, which provide drinking water to millions, especially in the summer months when there is less rainfall. “The summer is when we need the water in the lowlands.” he says, “If the glaciers are gone, this can have really serious consequences.”

What to do? Once actually "solving" the problem becomes a critical political issue, will there be anything left to "solve"?


Dams and reservoirs. They'll have to capture more precipitation and store it in liquid rather than solid form. Obviously that will have environmental consequences as well.


Incidentally, the reservoirs that help ensure water supply in case of low rainfall here in parts of Germany are down to less than 50% of maximum and falling. It has been a very dry year here. The Rhine is low enough to have a dramatic impact on shipping.


Same in Netherlands; I now wonder if our drainage and flooding prevention (from e.g. the Rhine) was too good.


This is possible as long as precipitations are large enough. I would think this is still firmly an "if" proposition.

At first glance it does not seem obvious at all that the water cycle as we know it will be recognisable in 100 years.


It's more then that - rivers feed cooling towers that are required for power plants, refineries, natural gas processing plants. [1] [2]

This is already a big issue for industry in the summer

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooling_tower [2] https://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/energy-and-water-use/wat...


Desalination I suppose. Israel has really pushed the limits. California has private desalination companies supplying drinking water.


There is very little saltwater supply in Switzerland.


I mean, is there any natural saltwater in Switzerland? GP sounds a lot like the whole "I'll sell you a beachfront property in Arizona" thing.


There’s also very little crude oil in Switzerland. And very few coffee and cocoa beans. I wonder how they make their famous Swiss chocolate?


They use their Large Hadron Collider to synthesize it.


Oil is brought in via the Rhine river and processed at the refinery in Cressier. It would of course be possible to ship seawater instead and desalinate it. I doubt it’s an economical enterprise.

Hah sorry. I read "low lands" as "low countries". You could pipe it but at that point you might as well find a different fresh water source.


The Chilling Extinction of Spain's Last Glacier, south of the Pyrinees things look really, really bad:

https://elpais.com/elpais/2018/10/24/inenglish/1540379684_70...


It's hard to imagine just how fast the Alps' glaciers are shrinking. This is near Chamonix: http://www.drdirtbag.com/2018/07/11/aiguille-verte-moine-rid...


I don't expect this glacier to be visible anymore from Montenvers train station/lookout during our lifetimes. The glacier in the visible part is almost flat, meaning even 5km up the valley its still below 2000m altitude - that's becoming a death zone for glaciers.

Really, if anybody is into mountains and admiring those alpine terrains, enjoy them now while you can. In maybe 30 years, the only place to admire them in Chamonix area will be from Aiguille du Midi, sitting 3800m high on top of a rocky needle.

I expect other high-altitude european easy-to-reach places like Zermatt and Eiger will be in same or even worse state due to nature of the terrain there.


Yeah, the ladders between glaciers and huts in the Bernese Alps are grim. The Oberaletsch Glacier is toast, and several of the others are looking pretty bad. See it while you can, and take pictures to show your kids.

This is by Mer de Glace in Chamonix. Just in the few years I have been here I have really noticed the decrease. They have to extend the stair down by a few meters every year. http://glaciers-climat.fr/Mer_de_glace/La_Mer_de_glace.html


I saw these pictures in the museum in Chamonix, too. This glacier is just in a long term retreat that got a bit faster thanks to sunny and warm weather. In 1820 it was a little too big and almost destroyed the town...


Interesting also because 2018 had an unusually long winter and likely more snow than usual. I would have expected it to be the year when glaciers would get bigger for a change.


As a long distance ice skater I know that snow has a detrimental effect on ice growth due to its insulating effect.

Moreover the spring and summer of 2018 were warm [1] and sunny [2] in Europe. The comparison picture in the article of this tiny glacier after a cold [3] and cloudy [4] spring and summer of 2006 is not a solid basis for drawing conclusions.

[1] https://www.meteoschweiz.admin.ch/product/output/climate-dat...

[2] https://www.meteoschweiz.admin.ch/product/output/climate-dat...

[3] https://www.meteoschweiz.admin.ch/product/output/climate-dat...

[4] https://www.meteoschweiz.admin.ch/product/output/climate-dat...


Ice growth on a glacier is what remains of snow over one year. I don't know proper english jargon, but glaciers usually accumulate snow from around october to june. June to october is the melting period.

Obvious: glacier growing means it accumulates more snow (that will slowly convert into solid ice) than is melting in the summer.


Exactly, there is no magic - all the ice is just snowfall compressed over time, by its own weight and melting/refreeze cycles.

This autumn has been really great for outdoors but disastrous to glaciers - extremely warm till end of october, no precipitation at all for more than a month.


Glaciers work differently from ice on a pond. They have a 'budget' which is determined by the rate at which snow accumulates on the top and the rate at which melting occurs lower down. When glaciers are stable they have net accumulation above that turns to ice, flows downward, and melts at the snout.

Once the temperature reaches a point where net accumulation no longer occurs anywhere on the glacier it quickly disappears.


Has anybody watched the animation[1]?

For me it looks like the overall amount of ice in the alps shrank a lot 10.000 years ago. Since then it remained relatively constant with the last 50 years giving it the final straw.

[1]: https://vimeo.com/294517816


Overpopulation


No, global warming.


one has a strong effect on the other.


Only one is quickly remediable via policy though.

Reducing global population may happen, but it would take multiple generations, so is hardly relevant to short-medium term climate change policy. Reducing emissions however is practicable over the timespans relevant to climate change.

Usually when people say 'overpopulation' they mean the irrational counter-emphasis, ie. "they should stop having babies, so we can keep driving vast CO2-spewing SUVs, eating scads of industrially-produced meat, and generally fouling our rapidly decaying nest".


> Usually when people say 'overpopulation' they mean the irrational counter-emphasis, ie. "they should stop having babies, so we can keep driving vast CO2-spewing SUVs, eating scads of industrially-produced meat, and generally fouling our rapidly decaying nest".

Not necessarily. Both overpopulation and climate change are problems. Even folks who don't drive CO2-spewing SUVs understand that. (I 'drive' a bicycle while spewing CO2 out my mouth, so there.)


Well, yes, but that doesn't contradict what I'm saying. "Usually" implies "not necessarily".

It's trivially true that population is part of the equation. But it's pragmatically irrelevant to short-medium term policy when we know we are in a state of critical global emergency, with natural systems collapsing apace. Policy needs to address that right now. I doubt the "overpopulation!" expostulators are really proposing a human cull as policy. I'm not sure what else that leaves as their motivation other than misdirection.


If we don't start to address it the cull will come "naturally" via starvation, war, migration and so on.

No need to propose a human cull. Simply make large families something socially unacceptable and promote via campaigns and the tax system. It could easily change as extensively and rapidly as single earner family with stay at home mothers have.

It has to be part of any rational solution.


How does the cull come via migration?


Forced migration will come to affect millions if climate change is not constrained as homelands are lost to sea or become uninhabitable. So there will be large numbers attempting to migrate over land or sea without certain destination. There'll be dying en route, and presumably will eventually be forcibly rebuffed at borders when numbers get large enough. Aid agencies will likely be far beyond ability to cope.

We've seen this in far smaller numbers with those attempting to cross the Med etc in unseaworthy overloaded boats, and the associated deaths.

Of course there's also likely to be disease and starvation in any ad hoc refugee camps that arise.


>I doubt the "overpopulation!" expostulators are really proposing a human cull as policy.

I share a house with two who claim to be. They do shut up about it when I suggest that they go first however.


I see, and agree.


Cool.

To clarify: of course we'll need to find some way to keep a check on human population. But it's a generational policy issue which we won't remotely have the global social/political stability to address if we don't substantially curb CO2 emissions in the next few decades.


> Only one is quickly remediable via policy though.

And it's not the one you think.

Starting a global nuclear war is easier than coordinating the world to fight climate change.


I think you're confusing policy & politics. Start with policy. Ignoring the human-cull-with-nukes snark, there is no population policy that is relevant to the timescale at which climate breakdown needs to be tackled. Population policy falls at the first hurdle so you never get to the politics.

There are plenty of policies that could stem the rise in global emissions, so we move on to the politics. There I agree with you. There isn't a plausible political route to the global policies we need. My view of the future is that ecosystems will collapse, and, probably in the second half of this century, 'civilisation' (huh) will crumble as mutiple successive wars over declining resources and forced population movements sweep the globe.


Fair enough. I read "policy" as encompassing both proposals and implementation.

Otherwise, I agree with you. Barring killing people who live now, any attempt now at reducing population will start having meaningful impact decades from now (kids use less energy than adults). We need solutions that deliver impact on much shorter timeframes.


What makes you say that?

Multiple wars have taken place in the 60 years or so since global nuclear war has become possible. Most of those wars have involved at least one, sometimes several of the great nuclear powers, including as (somewhat indirect) opponents.

Nuclear war doesn't seem to break out that easily.


He's making the point that the politics of a human cull are feasible (ie. a nation with nukes can decide to unilaterally launch), whereas those of emission reduction are intractable (ie. requiring a serious global agreement).


I admit it was a lazy snark, but 'crispinb understood it correctly. Nuclear war is easy to start, because one nation can unilaterally decide it. The world has also been through Cold War, when a nuclear exchange seemed like a strong attractor that we barely managed to break free of. The stories of that era are about how effort and luck helped us not nuke ourselves.

But my point here can be extended to non-nuclear wars, population-elimination strategies (genocide) and extreme population control (sterilization, one-child-max-or-else). They're all adversarial, and this is something that comes easy to humans. Whereas implementing policies to help deal with climate require coordination at scale, which is something we particularly suck at.


> implementing policies to help deal with climate require coordination at scale, which is something we particularly suck at.

Yes, quite. We're primates with a impressive cognitive, linguistic & cultural abilities, but there's nothing in our makeup or history to offer much confidence that we are capable of making hard collective decisions on a planetary scale. The naked ape may have hit its limits.


This is one of those things which sounds "obviously true" and but doesn't seem to be backup up by data.

There are plenty of high-population countries with low carbon emissions (eg Nigeria, Pakistan). There are plenty of low population countries with high carbon emissions (eg Australia, UAE).

There are rich countries with high carbon emissions (USA, UAE, Australia) and rich countries with low absolute emissions (Switzerland) or in per capita terms (Germany). There are poorer countries with high emissions (Kazakhstan) and low emissions (Vietnam)

It's almost like what people do matters as much as how many there are!


Such data can't be observed independently. The person's carbon footprint can be orders of magnitude higher when the complete extent of his activity is considered. E.g. if the products used by citizens of the country X are produced in the country Y, you can't say that the citizens of the country X have low carbon footprint even if it's not directly visible in the single data item (e.g. which measures what's only produced in X).

In short, the countries "on the top" are actually responsible for a lot of emissions produced in the countries "at the bottom."


I agree it's extremely complicated.

Even the countries "on the top" are actually responsible for a lot of emissions produced in the countries "at the bottom." statement isn't super accurate, because US emissions are primarily domestic (while Chinese are much more mixed).

Either way, it's inaccurate to try to simplify it to "overpopulation" or even to draw to much of a link between population and emissions.


> it's inaccurate ... even to draw to much of a link between population and emissions

I agree only if the data about the countries are observed independently. That is, if somebody says "the country X is so and so because overpopulation." But once we speak about the world:

Once one accepts that there's only one planet and the humans on it, it's much more obvious: the critics are always ready to say that the humans as the whole starve less as we reached this number of billions. But the analysis of how it was possible gives a simple answer: we have pushed the previous limits by simply using more resources and more energy. Both of which are much more limited than a lot of humans are willing to know: the heavier elements (and even as light as helium) are produced in the stars, so once we don't have enough available on the earth's crust, we'll have big problems. The arable land is also limited, we're already mostly using everything usable, and pushing the limits there affects everything else. Finally, we managed to use half of easily reachable oil, only to discover a new way to exact it, giving us approximately a few times more than before. But by burning the hydrocarbons we're making very big problems for everything on the planet, including us.

Look at these graphs, soon you will not be able, thanks to the administration which doesn't like such details to be even read about:

http://cdiac.ess-dive.lbl.gov/trends/emis/glo_2014.html

especially "Global Per Capita Carbon Emission Estimates." Note that in the same time period the number of capita of the world steadily increases.

https://www.researchgate.net/figure/World-Population-1800-20...

At 2000 we were at 6 billion. Now we're at 7.7 billion.

We do continuously use at least the same energy per every human on the planet, not less (in fact we used mostly always more and more). And given that a lot of people in the "second and third world" produce the stuff for the people in the first, the "first world" just enjoys the benefits of the cheap labor and new consumers being steadily born in new quantities and the use of more energy for everything, but all at the cost of... the whole future.

So yes, in such a context overpopulation of the planet is one of the topics that are so inconvenient that most are not even ready to think about it.


I think the main things are that "overpopulation" is often used as a racist dogwhistle and that it allows many people to avoid confronting their own environmental impact


I literally had my sibling say that solving global warming is just about stopping Africans from having so many kids.

Ummm, no. You need to stop commuting with full sized SUVs and living in a 4,000sqft home.


CO2 emission is highly uneven per capita across the globe. Americans are more than capable of producing way more CO2, even if population remains flat.




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