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Swiss glaciers melting away at record rate

Switzerland's glaciers lost six percent of their total volume this year due to a dry winter and repeated summer heatwaves, shattering previous ice melt records, a report revealed Wednesday.

Swiss glaciers melting away at record rate
This aerial picture taken on September 13, 2022 at Glacier 3000 resort above Les Diablerets shows the Tsanfleuron pass free of the ice that covered it for at least 2,000 years next to blankets covering snow from the last winter season to prevent it from melting. - The thick layer of ice that has covered a Swiss mountain pass between Scex Rouge glacier and Tsanfleuron glacier since at least the Roman era has melted away completely. Following a dry winter, the summer heatwaves hitting Europe have been catastrophic for the Alpine glaciers, which have been melting at an accelerated rate. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

The study by the Cryospheric Commission (CC) of the Swiss Academy of Sciences laid bare the drastic scale of glacial retreat — which is only set
to get worse.

“2022 was a disastrous year for Swiss glaciers: all ice melt records were smashed,” the CC said, adding that a two percent loss in 12 months had
previously been considered “extreme”.

Three cubic kilometres of ice — three trillion litres of water — have melted away, the report said.

“It’s not possible to slow down the melting in the short term,” said glaciology professor Matthias Huss, head of Glacier Monitoring in Switzerland,
which documents long-term glacier changes in the Alps and is coordinated by the CC.

If carbon dioxide emissions are reduced and the climate protected, “this might save about one third of the total volumes in Switzerland in the best 
case, he told AFP.

Otherwise, the country “will be losing almost everything by the end of the century.

Saharan dust speeds melt

At the start of the year, the snow cover in the Alps was exceptionally light, then a large volume of sand dust blew in from the Sahara Desert between
March and May, settling on the surface.

The contaminated snow absorbed more heat and melted faster, depriving the glaciers of their protective snow coating by early in the European summer.The continuous heat between May and early September therefore ravaged the glacial ice.

By mid-September, the once-thick layer of ice that covered the pass between the Scex Rouge and Tsanfleuron glaciers had completely melted away, exposing bare rock that had been frozen over since at least the Roman era.

And in early July, the collapse of a section of the Marmolada glacier, the biggest in the Italian Alps, killed 11 people and highlighted how serious the
situation had become..

According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published in February, the melting of ice and snow is one of the 10 key threats from climate change.

Smallest glaciers hardest hit

“The loss was particularly dramatic for small glaciers,” the CC said.

The Pizol, Vadret dal Corvatsch and Schwarzbachfirn glaciers “have practically disappeared — measurements were discontinued”, the commission

In the Engadine and southern Valais regions, both in the south, “a four to six-metre-thick layer of ice at 3,000 metres above sea level vanished,” said
the report.

Significant losses were recorded even at the very highest measuring points, including the Jungfraujoch mountain, which peaks at nearly 3,500 metres.

“Observations show that many glacier tongues are disintegrating and patches of rock are rising out of the thin ice in the middle of glaciers. These
processes are further accelerating the decline,” said the report.

“The trend also reveals how important glaciers are to the water and energy supply in hot, dry years,” the report stressed — something to consider given that hydroelectricity provides more than 60 percent of Switzerland’s total energy production.

The glacial meltwater in July and August alone would have provided enough water this year to completely fill all the reservoirs in the Swiss Alps.

But Huss said that if the country experienced this year’s meteorological conditions in 50 years’ time, “the impact would be much stronger, because in
50 years, we expect that almost all glaciers are gone and therefore cannot provide water in a hot and dry summer”.

Melt reveals macabre finds

The melting of the glaciers has also had some unexpected consequences.

Hikers are regularly making macabre discoveries as bodies are being freed from the ice they have been encased in for decades or even centuries.

The melting can also be a boon for archaeologists who suddenly have access to objects that are thousands of years old.

Meanwhile, the melting of a glacier between Italy and Switzerland has moved the border that ran along the watershed, forcing lengthy diplomatic

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Climate change takes toll on Swiss trees in Risoud Forest

The Risoud Forest, covering the border between France and Switzerland some 1,200 metres up in the Jura mountains, is filled with spruce trees which are hundreds of years old. But climate change has brought drier, warmer weather, threatening the special tonal qualities of the wood.

Climate change takes toll on Swiss trees in Risoud Forest

Stroking a tiny spruce sapling, Swiss forest ranger Francois Villard fears the tree in the Risoud Forest will not withstand global warming and live to a ripe old age like its ancestors.

Their wood is perfect for crafting acoustic guitars, violins and other string instruments, making it sought after by luthiers around the world.

“I have never seen so many dry trees,” says Villard, who is now approaching  retirement.

He is saddened by the sight of so many spruces turning red, losing their needles and drying up, and by spending his days marking trees for felling.

“When I arrived here 30 years ago, there was an average annual temperature of five to six degrees Celsius. Now we are well above that,” 

Recent winters have been nowhere near as cold as before.

Risoud resonance 

Spruces are the most common trees in Switzerland, and the hitherto stable climate in the Jura made the species perfect for producing tonewood for acoustic string instruments.

Stiff yet light softwoods like spruce are used to make soundboards — the top of the instrument — which amplifies the vibrations of the strings.

The soundboard must resonate easily with good tonal qualities, while resisting the strain of the strings on the bridge — characteristics that
spruce possesses better than other woods.

The trees that meet the criteria perfectly are exceptionally rare — one in 1,000 or even 10,000, some say.

The tree must be 200 to 400 years old, and the bottom of the trunk must have a diameter of at least 50 centimetres. It must be without knots or flowing resin.

The tree must have grown straight, slowly and, above all, with regular annual growth so that the tree rings are uniform and tight.

Wood stock 

In the workshop of Swiss Resonance Wood, in the village of Le Brassus close to the French border, Quentin Durey sketches the outline of a guitar on a thin sheet of wood. Thousands more sheets are piled up to dry out over the years.

“There are about 2,000 guitar tops — classical, romantic and folk guitars,” explains company boss Theo Magnin.

The company sells to Europe, Japan and Mexico amongst other destinations.

But Magnin is worried. “I don’t know where people who make musical instruments are going to get their supplies in 10 or 20 years,” he says.
“If there is no more wood, there will be no more instruments.”

Philippe Ramel, a luthier whose workshop overlooks Vevey and Lake Geneva, makes two to four guitars a year, using spruce from Swiss Resonance Wood.

“We have to stock up, on the assumption that one day these trees will no longer be there” or will lose their special qualities, he says, noting
that cedar wood from Lebanon, though not as good, could end up being the replacement.

Spruce tonewood should therefore be used wisely, he said, questioning whether factories should be churning out a thousand guitars a month.

“The guitar is a popular instrument. It may become a luxury instrument,” he says.

Music of the future 

Dry conditions weaken the spruce trees, which then attract forest-ravaging bark beetles. And extreme weather conditions can affect their growth, altering the regularity of the tree rings.

“If it continues like this, the stress on these trees will be greater and greater and it’s not clear that they will be able to get through it,” Villard

Normally the trees bear fruit every two to three years. But they are now doing so more frequently, driven by the need to reproduce and thereby ensure they continue to exist, Villard explains.

All is not lost. Letting hardwoods, particularly beech trees, grow in the spruce forests helps to retain moisture in the soil, as their broader span and
foliage helps keep the sun’s rays off the ground.

Others note the millions of spruces already growing in the mountains.

“In the places which are sheltered from climate extremes, particularly north-facing ones, there really will be spruces for a very long time,” forest
engineer Philippe Domont notes..

“With the altitude, they can take advantage of a slight increase in temperatures — if the precipitation does not decrease too much,” he insists.

But Magnin, thinking further down the line, says: “We will have to find another wood to replace spruce.”

“That’s the music of the future.”