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German glaciers may melt away in 10 years

April 29, 2021

Germany's five glaciers, all in Bavaria's Alps and melting faster than once forecast, could be doomed within 10 years, experts have said. Melt from glaciers is partially responsible for rising sea levels.

Two people walking on a glacier on the Zugspitze
Walks like this on a glacier in the German Alps could be impossible in as little as 10 yearsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Jansen

Glaciologist Christoph Mayer said Bavaria's five glaciers — combined — had already shrunk to just half a square kilometer (124 acres) of ice — the equivalent of 36 football fields, and 88% less compared to their status around 1850.

Although small, their fate as climate indicators were of "great importance," said Mayer.

The study by Bavaria's Academy of Science, its second on local glaciers since 2012, emerged as Germany's Constitutional Court ruled Thursday that the nation's climate law was insufficient to protect future generations beyond 2030.

Among the doomed ice remnants, said the study, were the two Schneeferner glaciers skirting Germany's highest peak, the Zugspitze, with its more robust northern sheet shedding 250 liters (66 gallons) of meltwater every 30 seconds. 

"Bavaria's last Alpine glacier could be gone in as little as 10 years," said Environment Minister Thorsten Glauber of the Free Voter party, the junior partner in Bavarian Premier Markus Söder's Munich coalition cabinet, adding that the glaciers were melting faster than previously expected.

"The causes and reciprocal effects lie definitively in climate change," stressed Mayer.

The Bavarian study coincided with a global study, published this week in the journal Nature, showing 220,000 glaciers are losing 31% more snow and ice annually than they did 15 years earlier, with permafrost loss prompting landslides.

Already, glaciers are responsible for 21% of sea level rise — melting ice sheets across Greenland and Antarctica excluded, the study said, six months ahead of the UN's next climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow.

That accelerating glacial melt of 298 billion metric tons of ice and snow per year equated to swamping Switzerland under 7.2 meters (24 feet) of water each year, said Zurich glaciologist Romain Hugonnet.

Half of this glacial loss came in the United States and Canada, with Alaska's melt "among the highest on the planet," said the Nature article authors led by Hugonnet of Zurich's ETH University.

Even Tibetan plateau glaciers are affected, impacting millions of people who daily source water downstream, said the study.

That melting mirrored the "global increase in temperature" due to burning of coal, oil and gas, said Hugonnet. 

Ever greater sea level rise

Glaciers were becoming "memorials" of the climate crisis, not just early indicators of climate change, said Michael Zemp of the World Glacier Monitoring Service.

"Sea level rise is going to be a bigger and bigger problem as we move through the 21st century," warned Mark Serreze, director of the US Snow and Ice Data Center, which makes extensive use of satellite observation tools.

 ipj/sms (dpa, AP, AFP, Reuters)