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Where Glaciers Melt Away, Switzerland Sees Opportunity (nytimes.com)
87 points by pseudolus 38 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments

The glacier melting trend is actually incredibly fast.

Before I moved to Switzerland at the start of this decade, I visited the Rhone glacier. It's a stunning drive, well worth the trip. When I got there, it looked like a frozen waterfall, coming over the edge of the cliff where the tourist vantage point is.

It's only open in the summer, so I'd drive down there each summer.

Each summer, it was like going to a new glacier. It retreated by a lot each time. You didn't need photos to notice that it was a good 10-20m shorter each time. The last time I went a few years ago the rocks on the edge were completely exposed and you had to walk a fair bit to where the ice was thick enough to carve a tunnel into.

If you looked in the tourist shops and the old hotel, you could see paintings of the glacier in the 1800s. Back then it filled up the whole valley. Nowaways you can see young trees there.

If you are ever in the Engadin valley, I can recommend the Morteratsch Glacier trail. There are signs along the trail to indicate the historic positions of the glacier. It's incredibly impressive how much the glacier retreated over the last few decades. It also really drives the point home that climate change isn't a new phenomenon, we've been at it for a couple centuries now. But it picked up a lot of speed recently.

I read that the retreat of some glaciers in the Alps uncovered ancient Roman artefacts like coins. So it is probably not the first time they retreat either.

Do you believe inside the next 2000 years they will recover? The underlying premise is not that climate has not changed before. The premise is that there is no strong belief the cyclic nature of glacial retreat will be seen in any sensible timeframe (tens of thousands of years)

There are hypotheses that the last mini ice age was caused by slaughtering native am populations in the 1500s, causing their crops to grow back.

I’m not going to suggest a slaughter obviously, but an extremely strong economic recession could bring us back to pre-1990 carbon levels (when they were balanced, as per IPCC).

You're mixing up stocks and flows. Emissions are a flow. Co2 level is a stock. A recession will reduce the flow, but the stock will still increase.

The hypothesized decrease of co2 in the 1500s from native american death was a decrease in the stock. Farmlands returned to wild states and sequestered carbon.

The IPCC certainly has never said that "pre-1990" carbon emissions were balanced.


"The radiocarbon ages of tree fragments and peat discs found on proglacial forefields indicate 12 phases of glacier recessions during the Holocene. Locations and type of occurrence of the dated samples show that trees and mires grew where glaciers exist at present and, therefore, glaciers were smaller at that time. ... their pattern changed from long recessions (/500 yr) interrupted by short advances (B/200 yr) during the early Holocene to the opposite pattern with relatively short recessions and prolonged advances during the late Holocene (after 3.3 cal. kyr BP). It is important to recognize that this natural variability of glacier extent, which occurs on a centennial timescale, is superimposed on a much longer term, multimillennial-scale trend towards increased glacier extent culminating in the ‘Little Ice Age’."


Glaciers in the alps have been advancing and receding for the last 10,000 years, with the last few thousand years primarily advancing through the little ice age. They are now retreating.

There was apparently a possible warm period during the later Roman period:


How do you know that those coins haven't been dropped by someone crossing the glacier?

A fact missing in this article is that dams in Switzerland are used for energy storage nowadays. It used to be the case that during lunchtime hydro produced most of the peak energy. Atomic power was used to pump the water into the dams during the night. Nowadays solar and wind, mostly from northern Germany, provide so much energy througout the day that it is more efficient to pump water into dams during lunchtime. It is unclear if these big dams can be run profitably.

More context: https://www.nzz.ch/schweiz/aktuelle-themen/pumpspeicherwerk-... (German)

Thankfully Switzerland has the resources to manage this phenomenon - one of the more hair raising natural disasters are glacial lake outbursts, capable of unleashing a wall of water down mountain valleys: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glacial_lake_outburst_flood

You really don't want to be a poor Nepalese villager living in one of these valleys when that happens.

The site in question is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site 'Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch'; its description by UNESCO [1] mentions, in part:

"It features a wide diversity of ecosystems, including successional stages due particularly to the retreat of glaciers resulting from climate change. The site is of outstanding universal value both for its beauty and for the wealth of information it contains about the formation of mountains and glaciers, as well as ongoing climate change." [1]

Not entirely sure how a new dam would be compatible with its heritage designation, but it would certainly continue to illustrate ongoing climate change.

[1] UNESCO World Heritage List, 'Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch' https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1037/

I don't get it. From the point of view of electricity generation and freshwater flow, what is the difference between a stable glacier and no glacier at all? I am probably missing something, because assuming constant rainfall, a stable glacier's contribution should be neutral.

Shouldn't we say that, from the point of view of energy generation and freshwater flow, climate change has been a net benefit so far, which we'll stop enjoying in the foreseeable future?

Rain/snowfall is limited to a small(ish) number of days, while meltwater is on a predictable 12-month cycle. With rain that just flows down the mountain, you get a few days of far too much water, and the rest is dry.

The glacier (and snow) average out flow over time. It acts as a natural holding pool.

I thought about that, but while it's true that a glacier acts as a buffer, I guess that rain at those altitudes always falls as snow- for the majority of the year but probably in the summer as well- then proceeds to melt away during the summer. So the buffer effect shouldn't be entirely gone.

That's a false dichotomy. There's clearly some kind of optimal rate that lies inbetween stable glacier and glacier that melts in a single day.

I loved the experience of reading this article. The flow through the images, animations, and text all controlled without thinking only using one input-device was executed perfectly. There was a strong connection between the text and the image media where one would give way to the other but at the same time supported each other throughout without taking control away from the user.

Yes while some will temporarily benefit from global warming, the vast majority of humanity will suffer. We need articles about THAT story. Given that we are now in a mass extinction event (60% of animals gone in last 30 years, looking like 80% of bugs) people need to start doing some serious research into why, particularly how global warming is involved. It's likely very much involved. The recent research about the 98% drop in bugs in the Puerto Rican rainforest found that global warming seems to be the main cause, with extremely hot days becoming very frequent.

Edit: Nobody likes the gloom and doom stuff I guess. Nothing to see here, everything is fine.

> Yes while some will temporarily benefit from global warming, the vast majority of humanity will suffer. We need articles about THAT story...Nobody likes the gloom and doom stuff

That's exactly the balance I see in climate change reporting. It's almost all doom and gloom. Articles like this one, which shows both positives and negatives, are an oddity.

Ah yes I too love to read about the positives of the worst ecological disaster we have ever experienced (created) that will lead to widespread suffering and death. It's like arguing about how nuclear war would be great for the construction business.

Go tell all the climate refugees when their home gets swallowed up by the ocean or when a heatwave kills their grandma that they need to see the "positive sides" of the situation.

There are positives if you live on an ice-clad mountain, or a country that's mostly ice-clad mountains.

There aren't many if you live in a river delta, or a country that's mostly river-delta.

8.5m people live in Switzerland, 165m in Bangladesh, to pick two examples.

I'd say the benefits are dubious even for countries with mountains. You don't own your country. If people in Bangladesh are displaced because of global warming, they have a right to move into neighboring places in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet. I think the same is true for the Arabian peninsula and Central Europe. What are you going to do? Shoot and kill refugees?


Except that it is the "more responsible people" who emitted the vast majority of the carbon that is causing the sea level to rise and displace the people living there.

This isn't about overpopulation. It's about the effect of climate changes.

> Nobody likes the gloom and doom stuff I guess. Nothing to see here, everything is fine.

I guess nobody likes to be told which articles they should read, which part of news to focus etc. Balanced news feed is preferred. The stuff you mention was written on HN tons of times, we all know this

It wasn't mentioned in the article, but high altitude lakes are perfect for pumped hydro and with enough excess capacity in the system they should be able to mitigate the issue of declining meltwater by pumping water back to the top.

But wouldn't they expend more energy moving the water up the mountain than what it will generate? Second law of thermodynamics and all, I don't see how you can give water the same potential energy it had before it flowed through the turbines.

Of course, but pumped storage is about energy storage, not generation. It allows energy to be stored when generation is cheap, and then released at peak hours. It's remarkably efficient compared to most other storage systems.

Are there numbers for that? I'm thinking of comparing that to a flywheel or even just different electrical storage options.

Flywheels, superconductor storage or supercapacitors are somewhat more efficient [1], but they are an order of magnitude more expensive per unit of energy they can store. (Thousands of dollars per kWh capacity, rather than $200-$300.)

The real competitor is Li-Ion batteries which now cost about the same as pumped storage, and have similar cycle efficiency. Problem is the capacity decline after a few hundred cycles, which is unfortunate if you want to build infrastructure that is low-maintenance and survives decades.

If you are interested in the area, this blog post gives some thoughts to implications [2] though it is a bit outdated by now.

[1] https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Comparison-of-various-EE... [2] https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2011/08/nation-sized-battery/

Looks like it is 70-80%, possibly higher.


Ugh - more retreating from nuclear caused by ignorant fear mongering :(

Why would someone prefer a nuclear plant over a hydro plant?

Hydro plants (specifically, dams) can be very disruptive to the local environment. You're flooding entire valleys.

They can also pose a substantial danger in the case of failure, see e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vajont_Dam (~2000 casualties, vs Fukushima Daiichi's estimated death toll of ~500).

(I'm a big fan of hydro power, just saying it also has its draw backs)

The number 500 is a very rough estimate. The vast majority of deaths considered to be related to the nuclear failure involved old people who had to be evacuated, and then died due to stresses or medical problems during the evacuation. The number of deaths attributed to actual radiation exposure is ONE.

While the death toll of nuclear accidents is relatively low, their economic cost seems to be staggering. The Japanese authorities enforced a 30km exclusion zone around Fukushima; if an accident of similar size had happened to the Beznau nuclear plant, the entire city of Zürich could have fallen inside the exclusion zone. Just think of the real estate value vaporized. Even if it's one event in a thousand years, I'm not sure it's worth the risk.

Fun fact, there were serious plans in the 1950ies to build a nuclear power plant right in Zurich, primarily as district heating for ETH Zurich.

https://www.research-collection.ethz.ch/bitstream/handle/20.... (page 83, German)

Well, in this case the flooded area was under water before as well... just frozen water. So I assume the environmental impact would be small, here.

Also I would assume, the higher up the mountain the dam is build the smaller the impact due to less flora and fauna.

I'd argue though that the 500 in Fukushima's case don't include the ripple effect of dying fish, hurting the environment and making products more radioactive, which then get shipped all over and cause cancer in people (I'm exaggerating but you get the gist).

Just like the estimates for building dams don't include the ripple effect of dying fish, dying fisheries, and the health impact on fishers. (Or the relocation of people to create dam lakes, leading to stress-related deaths just like Fukushima relocations might have...)

My point: Once you go into small and hard-to-quantify large-population effects, your error margins become ridiculous and you can pull out any conclusion out of your hat...

Most obviously, because they aren't near a river.

Second most obviously, because they want more power than the river can generate.

Third most obviously, because they want to leave some energy in the river.

Nuclear plants need a large supply of cooling water, so they are almost all near rivers, seas or lakes.

Different river characteristics than what is required for hydro plants.

Fourth, hydropower has claimed for more lives than nuclear power from direct accidents (remember that Fukushima has killed 0) [1].

[1] https://www.oecd-nea.org/ndd/reports/2010/nea6861-comparing-...

Because we haven't really solved the waste problem.

Why is it wrong to fear nuclear? It's damage can obviously be catastrophic, it's not banned, it's avoided. It's like air travel, while one or several journeys can go without incident, the few instances that do happen are costly. Mistakes with nuclear don't go unpunished.

I don't know if air travel is the best example - more and more people travel by air, and sure, there is the risk of death, but per mile traveled, it is by far the safest means of transport.

Quite the opposite, it's a perfect example. Nuclear is also the safest means of energy production if you account for deaths caused by pollution, mining, and other indirect factors.

And similar to air travel, people think it's unsafe because of constant fear mongering and focus on incidents that are statistically insignificant. There were more people who died at Fukushima because of the evacuation procedures than the expected long term death toll from radiation exposure (and, notably, there were 0 deaths directly caused by the incident).

We're hardwired to only believe in what we can immediately mentally visualize - a plane crash is so much more dramatic than a car crash, and the images of Fukushima stick with people when compared to the completely absent ability to mentally picture what a coal plant's damage looks like.

But the worst that can happen is a few planes out of hundreds fail every year. If nuclear was much more widespread as the primary source of energy would having atleast nuclear meltdown every few years make you feel safe? That is ofcourse if you are within the blast and radioactive zone.

I hate this new trend where existing text you are reading is faded out and replaced with an ad. So you have to scroll up to read what you were reading, then hit the ad again.... only to scroll past the ad and realize they don't show the previous paragraph... to hit the ad again.

I'm sure it's great for ad impressions, but the hate it generates surely outweighs any possible benefit to the advertiser.

No wonder revenue per ad is dropping.

I'm surprised every time I read about people's disappointment about ads, especially on HN. Not because I have problems with their disappointment, but because it genuinely surprises me to discover people that don't use ad blockers, even more on HN.

What's the reason for this? What moves so many people to opt against using an ad blocker? It surely can't be lack of awareness that such tools exist, not for an audience like that of HN.

Awareness that free content won’t exist in a world where everyone uses ad blocker?

I sometimes find ads annoying when, fir example, they change the layout. But I leave it in by default.

What I don’t understand is what you think you have to gain from advertising ad blockers? If people subsidize your entertainment, shouldn’t you be happy?

As far as I'm concerned, I'm not using an ad blocker, I'm using a third party tracker blocker. A reasonable number of ads, even in the middle of an article, are fine with me (well, as long as they don't pop up, obscure content, move or animate, or make sound). The name of the former extension "RequestPolicy" neatly sums up what I want: to be able to tell my browser to contact only hosts that I want it to contact. Also, malware blocker and CPU cycle saver.

> Awareness that free content won’t exist

The sooner ad revenue nosedives, the sooner someone will figure out micro-payments for content, the happier I will be to know the full cost of what I'm paying for content, rather than opaquely giving up my privacy.

I would be happier if that subsidizing wouldnt require a invasion of my privacy.

I am aware that there's no such thing as 'free content'. However I would be much happier if I could pay 5$ a month or so to some 'we'll distribute that to the websites you frequent' type of service.

I abandoned ad blockers, they caused more problems than they solved for me. Now if the adverts are that intrusive then I just leave the site and don't go back.

it bothered me too, but this site was IMO a case where the illustration made up for it.

Its unreadable.

I read it.

I gave up. My time is limited. They could have got the message over with a one page executive summary and left it to me to scroll through the details if I thought they were necessary.

I'm pretty sure that's exactly what they don't want to do. You can't ignore their interests.

Oh yes, we can. If a site bothers me, I won't read there.

Then you win I guess.

This presentation is openly contemptuous of its readers. No thanks.

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