Unchecked greenhouse gas emissions could see more than 90 percent of glaciers in the Alps disappear by the end of the century, scientists said Tuesday in new research.
There are more than 4,000 glaciers — vast, ancient reserves of ice — dotted throughout the Alps, providing seasonal water to millions and forming some of Europe’s most stunning landscapes.
But as humans pump out more and more planet-warming gases through burning fossil fuels, construction, aviation and mega-farming, those mountainside ice sheets are in danger.
A team of researchers in Switzerland used cutting-edge climate models and paired them with the most sophisticated measurements of glaciers to date to compare how they fared under various emissions scenarios.
Under a situation where greenhouse gas emissions peak within a few years and rapidly recede towards the century’s end — a scenario known among climatologists as RCP 2.6 — they found that a third of Alpine glacier mass would survive. However, under RCP 8.5 — essentially a business-as-usual approach where man-made emissions continue to rise as the global population swells — the models turned up worrying results.
“In this pessimistic case, the Alps will be mostly ice free by 2100, with only isolated ice patches remaining at high elevation, representing 5 percent or less of the present-day ice volume,” said Matthias Huss, a researcher at ETH Zurich and study co-author.
Earth’s atmosphere currently contains more than 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide — the highest level in three million years.
Perhaps most troublingly, the team found that due to historic emissions and current CO2 levels, the Alps will lose half of its glaciers no matter what is done about emissions.
The study came a day after European scientists said that the world’s glaciers had lost around 9000 billion tonnes of ice since 1961, contributing to a 27-millimetre rise in global sea levels.