254,851 Cubic Metres Of Ice May Soon Collapse In The Alps

A view of Grandes Jorasses Mountain. (Photo: Terekhova, Flickr)

A glacier is on the verge of collapsing in the northwestern Italian Alps. This is yet another reminder of why global leaders need to take action to stop climate change. Now.

Scientists monitoring the Planpincieux Glacier on the Grandes Jorasses Mountain sounded the alarm about the glacier Thursday. 254,851 cubic metres of ice is at risk of breaking off, threatening hikers and people travelling on roads below with a potential avalanche. What’s to blame? Climate change, of course.

This glacier is particularly vulnerable, Benjamin Orlove, the co-director of Columbia’s Climate and Society program and lead author on a landmark ice and oceans report, told Gizmodo. That’s because it’s a hanging glacier left stuck to the wall of a steep valley. Another glacier used to support it from below, but that one shrank. Now, Planpincieux is left to fend for itself.

“Each loss of a glacier is sad,” Orlove wrote to Gizmodo in an email. “This is sad for the local villagers who know the mountain and care for it, for the hikers and climbers who dream of visiting the mountain, and for many in Europe who treasure the Alps. The highest peak Mont Blanc has a name that means white mountain, and it may become less white.”

The risk for a collapse is “high,” per the New York Times, but researchers aren’t able to offer a date on when exactly it’ll happen.

The timing of this news couldn’t be more grimly fitting. The Swiss held a funeral over the weekend for a dying glacier in another part of the Alps. In Iceland, a similar funeral was held last month. By the end of the century, the Alps — where the Planpincieux Glacier sits — may lose half of all glaciers in the region due to climate change, a study earlier this year found.

“Many other glaciers in the Andes and Himalayas are also disappearing, also causing sadness, but they do not always get into the media as much. So this is one story of many,” Orlove said. “Climate change is a central cause. Glaciers are highly sensitive to rising temperatures. Much as winter snows melt quickly once spring fully arrives, glaciers from recent cooler times are melting quickly as well.”

When all this ice melts, our oceans rise. Glaciers outside of Greenland and Antarctica were responsible for about a third of all sea-level rise between 2006-2015 according to the aforementioned landmark report the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released Wednesday. That’s bad news for people, especially for low-lying cities and island nations where sea level rise will have some of the worst consequences. In Italy, the threats are much more visceral as locals worry about falling ice and avalanches.

Still, the future doesn’t have to be so dark. Cutting our greenhouse gas emissions can reduce the amount of glacier death. And if we stop at least some glaciers from melting, there may be some hope for those who live along the coast as well as in the mountains.

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