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The heat is on: the countdown has begun. The Alpine glaciers and the permafrost are heating up rapidly. Weather conditions have been absurd this summer. What next? Swiss News finds out.

In July, local newspapers and tabloids in Switzerland reported that Bern and parts of Switzerland had recorded July as the hottest month in 250 years. Later, in August, the temperatures soared yet again, making this the hottest month of the season. The mercury remained over the 30 degree Centigrade mark for over 10 days at a stretch. The sun-crazy people, who seemed to have had more than their fair share of hot weather and refreshing swims in the lakes, then began turning indoors for respite from the heat.

Storms, torrential rains, soaring temperatures hitting record highs have been the highlight of the summer of 2003. The Ozone layer is changing in density and height from the earth's surface. Glaciers are melting. Temperatures in the permafrost--or the permanently frozen water betwixt rocks--are rising and could cause the weathering and even crumbling of the Alpine rocks.

The Glacial Melt

Yes, mankind certainly has impacted the global climate adversely with the ever-growing wastage of energy, addition of pollutants to the environment and taking more and more from Mother Nature without giving her any replenishment.

Studies show that the warming is not linear but accelerating. They indicate that glacial shrinkage is a global phenomenon but with varied intensities and not uniform in pattern. It is less in the Northern Atlantic but more in Central Asia or South America. And most important, they show that we are at least at the margins or limits of natural variability. This means that glaciers are now in a condition that probably has never occurred in the past millennia. We have reached a unique condition since the last ice age--almost 10,000 years ago.

The first and easy-to-observe signs of the destruction of the natural environment are clearly seen in the pristine glaciers. You don't need be academically qualified to detect this deterioration. If you've been in Switzerland for some time now, you know that the country's borders are clearly defined by the Alps. Look out at a distance and you can see the snow-clad mountains. And if you revert to older photographs or postcards, you can see the difference over the years.

Prof. Dr. Wilfried Haeberli, Director, World Glacier Monitoring Service, shares some details with us.

First of all, he explains the formation of the glaciers: "When temperatures are cold enough, snow does not melt right through the year. When this happens repeatedly over years, you finally have an accumulation that forms an ice mass, which then starts flowing down to regions with higher temperatures. Here the ice begins to melt."

Following the brief narrative on glacier formation, he draws an interesting simile between banks and glaciers--two major highlights of Switzerland, both under pressure in today's climate. "Glaciers," he says, "are like a bank. There is an accumulation area or the income side and the ablation area or the withdrawal side. So, just as a bank balance is negative if the input is smaller than the output, for many years (roughly since 1860) the balance of the mountain glaciers all over the world has been negative. Glaciers have lost volume and this is clearly an effect of global warming."

It is known that high temperatures influence the melt and precipitation affects mainly the accumulation of snow. As temperatures soar, melting increases causing a natural imbalance.

Now if you look at the water cycle of evaporation, condensation and precipitation, logically, you are likely to say that more the evaporation, more the precipitation. Which is true. However, explains Dr. Haeberli, "Since it is warmer, the precipitation falls as rain and not snow! And this is not good for the glaciers, as they need snow--solid precipitation--not liquid rain. Liquid precipitation contributes nothing to the glacier volume. In fact it melts the ice as it is warmer than zero degree."

Effects Of Man and Nature

The phenomenon of global warming is partly natural and in part manmade. Only a virtual computer model can separate the two impacts, but not to a 100 per cent. The two are interconnected.

Says Dr. Haeberli, "Climate models show that glaciers started to disappear in the 19th century. That was not due to human impact as that, at the time, was very small. The melt was due to the higher intensity of the solar radiation due to natural changes in the sun. Therefore, the historical retreat of the glaciers was natural. "You see," explains the scientist, "The physical characteristics of the orbit of the earth and the inclination change. All this is understood quite well. And all this has an influence on the climate. So today we can explain how the ice age developed in the past and will come again in about 20 or 30 thousand years from now." He continues, "The immediate future has nothing to do with these long-term developments. So the next few decades and even centuries are just predominantly influenced by the human impact on the atmosphere."

And, since 1950, there have been clear indications in the strengthening of human impact.

Sure enough, about half of the shrinking today is estimated due to the human impact. This includes many factors the primary one being the greenhouse effect or CO2-release.

He then brings to light a fascinating fact: From the ice age till today, the change in global temperature recorded has been about three to four degrees. And, just in the 21st century, we have introduced a warming of two to six degree. Says Dr. Haeberli, "What the ice age took tens and thousands of years to do, we are doing in a century. We are really doing the ice age experiment! We are doing what nature did about 20 thousand years ago. The magnitude is the same, however the ice age was in the cold side and things began to change slowly. Now we are moving from the warm side and faster."

Concerns Over the Permafrost

Other than glaciers, there is also the permafrost that is melting away. Permafrost is the ice inside the crevices and cracks of rock, formed due to low temperatures. Slope stability is connected with the frozen grounds or permafrost.

Explains Dr. Haeberli, "When this ice melts, we will have a mix of rock, ice and water, causing friction. The increased pressure in the rocks will then lead to a complete breakdown. This will influence the stability of the slopes and life in these deeply cut valleys in the many decades to come."

In case of permafrost, heat diffusion into the ground is low. However, the risk runs deep when the water starts playing around in this material. "In Siberia these grounds are well-known, but the science is very young with fast developing. It was unknown in mountains and we are still in its infant stage of studies," he states.

Impact Of the Melt

In principle, as the temperatures are getting warmer, ice is melting faster--be it the case of glaciers or of permafrost. At a global level, when these glaciers melt, they influence the sea and contribute remarkably to rise in sea level. At a more regional level, the melt runs into rivers.

Has Switzerland ever felt the impact of the melt, you ask? Dr. Haeberli is quick to respond. He says, "In Switzerland, in July, we've had an extremely dry period because the snow disappeared so quickly. Right now, the lakes here are still being fed with the ice that's melting. But, at this rate, in the future there may be no ice left! And so--no water in summers! The melt of the glacier contributes to the water in rivers during summer time. The landscape will change, too."

Continues Haeberli, "It's a very complex system of processes interlinked to forests, agriculture and power production and consumption in between. But it is clear that with the disappearance of the glaciers there will be two main effects. One--draught problems towards the end of summer, a dry autumn mid extremely low levels of the water in streams, rivers and the water table. The other--floods closer to wintertime as the precipitation that doesn't come in the summers will come in winters.

"The storage of the precipitation from the wintertime to the summer that is being done by the glaciers will disappear as glaciers melt. Then, the precipitation that happens in the mountains in winters will come down faster and store less. Last winter there were huge floods in Germany. In Switzerland, we had terrible floods in 1987, 1993, and again in 1999 when the lakes of Thun and Zurich were very, high. Parts of Bern flooded, last winter. There were landslides, too."

All said and done, if these conditions were to continue, we'll have very extreme consequences in store ahead.

What's Being Done?

The atmosphere is global--and only global policies and environmental agreements may make a difference. Directly we can do nothing to prevent the melt. Laments Dr. Haeberli, "It's a global development and preventing the melt would mean restricting globally the emission of gases into the atmosphere. Many nations tried to reach an agreement but not all could follow the trend. There are very intense programmes being funded worldwide and by Switzerland." Switzerland has a lead position in the reduction of the emission of the green house gases, but it is not too successful. It has promised some reduction. but it is not quite there yet. "There has to be a change in attitude--globally," serenely adds Dr. Haeberli.

Politically, this problem is difficult to solve, as the cause and effect are very dinstant in space and time. Explains Dr. Haeberli, "What the US does today, may hit say the mountains or seas of India! So for instance, to tell the US to reduce energy consumption is difficult when the effects are so far away in both time and space."

He continues enthusiastically, "It's high time to be clever, creative and responsible for the future generations--not 10 generations to come, but starting with the very next generations--my children, my 20-year-old students. They will be 70 in 2050. They will experience most of the warming in their lifetimes. Stress times will be more difficult ahead. We have to race facts and find good solutions--by electing responsible people in politics, by saving energy or just stop wasting energy.

"To live modestly is difficult, but we should. Mainly because we are using the resources of our children! Awareness and less energy consumption are required in today's day and age. We need this solidarity among people. It is a moral or ethical aspect and difficult to convince people." Strong words by the director of WGMS that command bolder and more conscientious action.

The World Glacier Monitoring Service

In 1986 the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) initiated the maintenance and collection of data on ongoing glacier changes.

As a contribution to the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS / GTOS) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and to the International Hydrological Programme (IHP) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the WGMS of the International Commission on Snow and Ice (ICSI / IAHS) and the Federation of Astronomical and Geophysical Data Analysis Services (FAGS / ICSU) today collects and publishes worldwide standardised glacier information.

At present the WGMS gets important financial and logistic support from the University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich.

The Man With A Passion

"I was fascinated by the mountains. I was a mountain climber fascinated by ice," says Dr. Haeberli. His passion took him towards geo-sciences and he specialised with a PhD on permafrost back in 1970.

Involved in the science of glaciers and permafrost, he soon found himself on the platform of the World Glacier Monitoring Service as the Director of the organisation. "This also got me in touch with the UN and its other agencies," reveals Dr. Haeberli, who is on the panel of specific scientists with the United Nations.

"(At the UN) Interest in the environment over the last 10 years has dwindled," he admits. "UN agencies have little money. Things also depend in the involvement of different countries. But other nations have more processing issues that they'd rather contribute to."

He shares his views with Swiss News saying, "I believe in the young generations and have hopes pinned on them. Whatever little I do has an impact. Scientists do what they are here for--they can't question what they set out to do. If you have to spread awareness, you have to--without thinking of the "what ifs". Small differences make big changes."
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Author:Sethi, Aradhna
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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