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ENVIRONMENT

Austrian scientists race to reveal melting glaciers’ secrets

Jumping from rock to rock to rock over a creek formed off Austria's Jamtal glacier,  scientist Andrea Fischer worries that precious scientific data will be irreversibly lost as the snow and ice melt faster than ever.

jamtal glacier, austria
A photo taken on July 20, 2022 shows the Jamtal Glacier (Jamtalferner) near Galtuer, Tyrol, Austria. The glacier has been losing about one metre from its surface annually, but this year it has already lost more than a metre. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

“I couldn’t have imagined that it would ever melt as dramatically as this summer… Our ‘archive’ is melting away,” says the glaciologist.

Fischer — vice director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences — has spent more than 20 years surveying Jamtal and four other Alpine glaciers across Austria’s highest peaks
for the oldest areas of ice.

For scientists looking to reconstruct the Earth’s climate in the distant past, such ice formations are a unique time capsule stretching back thousands of years.

glaciologist andrea fischer in the mountains

Glaciologist Andrea Fischer, vice director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, poses at the Jamtal Glacier (Jamtalferner) near Galtuer, Tyrol, Austria on July 20, 2022. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

The glaciers contain an invaluable treasure trove of data — as they grew, the ice encapsulated twigs and leaves, which can now be carbon-dated, Fischer explains.

And based on the age of such material and the depth where it was found, scientists can infer when ice grew during colder periods, or when warmer conditions caused it to melt.

But now the glaciers are melting rapidly — including the one in the remote and narrow Jamtal valley, not far from where tourists found the stunningly preserved 5,300-year-old mummy of Oetzi, the Iceman, in the 1990s.

jamtal glacier

Glaciologists Andrea Fischer (L) and Violeta Lauria from the Austrian Academy of Sciences walk on the Jamtal Glacier (Jamtalferner) near Galtuer, Tyrol, Austria on July 20, 2022. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

Temperatures in Europe’s highest mountains have risen by nearly two degrees Celsius in the past 120 years — almost double the global average, according to the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA).

The Alps’ roughly 4,000 glaciers have since become one of the starkest signs of global warming.

Glaciologist Andrea Fischer examines ice samples

Glaciologist Andrea Fischer from the Austrian Academy of Sciences looks at ice samples from the Jamtal Glacier (Jamtalfern) near Galtuer in Innsbruck Tyrol, Austria on July 20, 2022. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)
Disappear completely? 

The Jamtal glacier has been losing about one metre (three feet) from its surface annually, but this year it has already lost more than a metre, Fischer says.

“And we’ve got at least two months of summer left… where the glacier is entirely exposed to the sun,” she warns.

Snow usually protects most of the glacial ice from the sun until September, but the little snow that fell last winter had already melted by early July.

“This year is outrageous compared to the average of the past 6,000 years,” says Fischer.

“If this continues, in five years, Jamtal glacier won’t be a glacier any more.”

glaciologists measure ice shelf height under jamtal glacier

Glaciologists Andrea Fischer (R) and Violeta Lauria from the Austrian Academy of Sciences measure the height under a part of the ice shelf of the Jamtal Glacier (Jamtalferner) near Galtuer, Tyrol, Austria on July 20, 2022. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

By the end of the summer, Fischer fears that about seven metres of depth will have melted off the surface — or about 300 years of climate “archives”.

“We need the data the glaciers hold to understand the climate of the past — and to create models of what awaits us in the future,” she says.

Fischer and her team have drilled on both the Jamtal and other nearby glaciers to extract data, taking out ice samples up to 14 metres deep.

As temperatures rise and the glaciers become more unstable, they are compelled to take additional safety precautions — 11 people died in a glacial ice avalanche in the Italian Dolomites in July, the day after temperatures there rose to new records.

‘My heart is bleeding’

In Galtuer, the nearest village to Jamtal with 870 residents who are mostly dependent on tourism, the Alpine Club is already offering a “Goodbye, glacier!” tour through the once ice-filled valley to raise awareness about the effects of climate change.

Where the ice has retreated, scientists found that within three years about 20 species of plants, mostly mosses, have taken over. In some areas, larches are growing, according to Fischer.

jamtal glacier austria

A photo taken on July 20, 2022 shows the Jamtal Glacier (Jamtalferner) near Galtuer, Tyrol, Austria. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

“If the glacier is gone in five years, that’s a pity, because it’s part of the landscape,” says Sarah Mattle, who heads the Alpine Club.

“But then there’ll also be new paths, and maybe there’ll be an easier hike over the mountains than over the ice. It’ll all be a matter of adapting,” the 34-year-old adds.

Other locals like Gottlieb Lorenz, whose great-grandfather was the first manager of the 2,165-metre-high Jamtal cabin set up as a refuge for mountaineers, are heartbroken.

“My heart is bleeding when I think about how magnificent and mighty the glacier was and what a miserable tiny pile it is today,” the 60-year-old says.

He points at a black-and-white photo taken in 1882 showing a thick ice sheet flowing past the cabin.

Today, the ice is a 90-minute hike away.

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WEATHER

Forecast: Austria faces sunny weekend but temperatures to drop next week

Despite recent sunny weather, people in Austria will have to brace for wintery temperatures in the coming days.

Forecast: Austria faces sunny weekend but temperatures to drop next week

On Friday, people in Austria woke up to a foggy day that quickly turned into an unexpectedly sunny day with mild temperatures. Still, the country’s weather is about to change, Austria’s meteorologic institute ZAMG said.

Saturday should still have some periods of sunshine, especially in the eastern half of the country – perfect for those who will take part in the Viennese Wine Hiking Day (Wiener Weinwandertag), as temperatures should stay around 15C to 18C during the day.

READ ALSO: Wiener Weinwandertag: Everything you need to know about Vienna’s ‘Wine Hiking Day’

In Vorarlberg and Tyrol, however, it may already start to rain, especially south and along the main ridge of the Alps.

Early temperatures in Austria are expected to be between one and eleven degrees, with lower values in the north and daytime highs of 15C to 21C.

Screenshot from ZAMG

On Sunday, dense clouds will dominate and rain is expected in many places. However, a few sunny spells are quite possible in between, most likely in the north and east of the country.

Mostly weak to moderate winds from south to west. Early temperatures will be between six and twelve degrees and daytime highs between 13 and 18 degrees.

READ ALSO: What’s on: Five things to do in Vienna this weekend

On Monday, sun and partly dense clouds will alternate. In the course of the day, there may be rain showers, especially in the mountains, where the clouds are often thicker.

Early temperatures will be between six and twelve degrees, with daily highs between 13C and 19C.

READ ALSO: Top tips to protect yourself from storms in Austria

Stormy weather from Tuesday

On Tuesday, the unsettled weather will continue. Although there may be sunny spells sometimes, clouds will predominate.

Rain showers are expected in all parts of the country, and it could rain for longer periods in some areas.

Early temperatures are between six and twelve degrees, and daily highs are between eleven and 17 degrees.

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