Preservation of Swiss Glaciers

How ETH Zurich and La Prairie are protecting the timeless beauty of precious natural landscapes

Swiss nature has long been revered for its unrivalled beauty. Vast lakes, majestic mountains and immense alpine glaciers are intrinsic to its unique landscapes. Glaciers, magnificent in scale and beauty, are unfortunately also one of the most endangered natural landscapes by climate change, witnessing the hardship of the passage of time.

Since 2019, La Prairie and the ETH Zurich Glaciology Section, two Swiss institutions, partner through their shared vision of preserving the beauty of Switzerland and its glaciers. Both believe science to play a crucial role in the long-term preservation of nature – a quest to understand the changes the planet is undergoing.

Through the research, La Prairie and ETH Zurich aim to raise awareness of the inherent fragility of these beautiful landscapes and the importance of their preservation through time, for them to continue to inspire artists, scientists and individuals alike.

Can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit more about you and the mission of the Glaciology Section at ETH?

My name is Daniel Farinotti, I am a Professor of Glaciology at both ETH Zurich and WSL Birmensdorf. In this role I’m leading ETH’s Glaciology Section, and I do so since 2016. Our goal is to understand the effects of climate change by delivering answers to glaciological questions that are of interest to the society at large. These include questions such as “How will the Earth’s glaciers evolve in the future?”, “What does it mean for water resources?”, or “What does glacier retreat imply in terms of opportunities and risks?”

What made you want to become a professor of Glaciology?

The beauty of pristine mountain landscapes – there is no doubt about that. If you ever stood on a glacierised mountain top at sunrise or sunset, you’ll know exactly what I’m speaking about – it’s magic!

Back in June you undertook a field trip with the La Prairie team at Jungfraujoch. Can you tell us why you selected this glacier and its particularity?

This site is one of the ca. 120 glaciers we monitor as part of the GLAMOS programme. The glaciers which are part of this programme have been selected due to their size, location and historical data to have a vast representation of the effects of climate change in regard to the Swiss Alp.

Jungfraujoch is at the very top of Grosser Aletschgletscher, the largest glaciers of the European Alps. The site is one of the birthplaces of glacier monitoring, with the data series going back more than 100 years. Continuing this invaluable series of observations is of high relevance, since it allows putting the rapid changes that we witness now in a long-term context. Grosser Aletschgletscher is also one of the sites where we conduct real-time monitoring.

What actions did you take during the excursion? What are some of the variables you monitoring and how?

With my team we conducted measurements to analyse the changes that occurred since the last visit, which we conducted at the end of summer 2020. To do so, we measure both the snow height and snow density. The first can be done by using what we call a snow probe – basically a long aluminium stick by which we punch through the snow itself, until we sense the last year’s surface.

Snow density, instead, can be measured either by digging a snow pit or by drilling snow cores. Here, the principle is to collect a given volume of snow and to measure its weight. The relation between weight and volume is what then tells us how much water is stored within the snow pack.

By repeating these measurements year by year, we assess the state of the glaciers through time.

You mentioned real-time monitoring. How does it work and how does it complement the data you gather from the “classic” way of monitoring?

Since the start of GLAMOS five years ago, glaciers have lost about 10% of their volume. This evolution – that we all can observe with our naked eyes – and the need for timely information about the ongoing changes, is what initiated our real-time monitoring efforts. With the ongoing pilot project, we aim at receiving “live” information about the glaciers. We do so by placing automatic cameras on the glaciers, which send us data every 20 minutes. This allows us to assess the glacier status virtually at any given time – that’s a big difference when compared to the “classical” monitoring, which yields data only twice a year.

How do the collected data contribute to a better understanding of the glaciers’ behaviour?

All measurements conducted in the field are fed into the GLAMOS database. These results are published annually. This data forms the basis for other glacier-related research, both here at ETH and at other institutions. Projections for the future evolution of glaciers, for example, draw from such data for calibrating the related numerical models. Ultimately, the data allow for a better understanding of the whole system.

Why are glaciers important? What role do they play in general?

Glaciers are amongst the most prominent indicators of climate change, as they integrate the effects of climate over a certain duration. In other words, glaciers help us “see” changes that would otherwise be difficult to grasp. Glaciers are also important water providers to the regions downstream, as they have accumulated snow and ice over the course of centuries. At the global scale, glaciers are important contributors to the present rate of sea-level rise – with the related implications for coastal communities. Finally, glaciers are an important element of our landscape – just think of a Swiss post card, and the white mountains you’ll see in the background!

What impact has climate change had on glaciers?

The changes we are observing are extraordinary, and alarming. For Switzerland, systematic glacier observations reach back more than 100 years. What we can say, is that the changes have never been as extensive and fast as they are at present. If you were to re-visit the same location after a few summer weeks, you would notice the change. If you re-visit it after a few years, you would hardly recognise the place.

What makes a glacier more or less exposed to climate change?

There are various factors controlling that. One factor is the direction in which a given glacier faces. South-facing glaciers experience higher sun exposure than north-facing ones, which has an effect on their melt rates. Even more important are the glaciers’ steepness and thickness. These parameters control how fast a glacier flows and therefore how fast it transports snow and ice from higher to lower elevations. It is this transport that ultimately controls the glacier’s response: if too little ice reaches the glacier’s snout, it will eventually retreat.

Why did you decide to work with La Prairie and how is La Prairie helping you achieve the mission of the Glaciology Section at ETH?

There are several elements that connect us: first, we are both deeply fascinated by the beauty of the pristine environments that harbour glaciers. Second, we are both deeply concerned by the rapid changes that our planet is experiencing, and we want to play an active role in minimising the adverse effects of these changes. In this respect, we both believe that science has a crucial role to play in the preservation of nature – now and for future generation. For La Prairie, science is rooted in their heritage; for us, it is what we dedicate our professional lives to. The wish of better understanding the changes that our planet is undergoing, is what drives us. Third is the notion of time, which is intrinsic to any glaciological activity. Lastly, we are both Swiss institutions, with a great attachment to the country in which we operate. The support of La Prairie, which has been directed towards two specific activities, help us to achieve our main goal: establishing a better understanding of glaciers and providing answer to glacier-related questions that are of societal relevance.

How does the work you are conducting today relate to other phenomena happening around the world?

It is important to note that the driver of glacier retreat, i.e. climate change, is the same one of a long series of other phenomena we are witnessing: the bleaching of coral reefs, the increased frequency and extent of forest fires, or the increase flooding following extreme rainfalls – just to name a few – can all be traced back to the same cause. With our research, we link into a much larger puzzle.

With an increase attention on climate change related topics, how do you see the work you do today evolving?

As a scientist, it is very rewording to see that the public at large pays close attention to the processes we study. For glaciologists, it is a unique time to create more awareness, and to inform the public about both the effects of climate change and the actions that can be taken against it. We are convinced that our research, and environmental research more in general, can help in motivating people to make more conscious decisions in the everyday life: knowing that our decisions have a direct effect on our planet confers these decisions a higher meaning.

Concretely, what can we do to protect glaciers? What would be your one message that you would like to share?

The answer is simple here: we need to curb our global greenhouse gas emissions. This means that we need to change the way we produce the energy that we use, and similar is true for the natural resources that we consume. We should really strive towards behaving more sustainably, i.e. we should only use as much resources as nature is able to supply in the long-term. We can all contribute to reducing greenhouse gases by reducing our energy demand. In concrete terms, this involves making reasoned choices in terms of consumption, mobility, housing, and food.

The world is changing incredibly fast –there is no doubt about it. It is up to us, now, to decide how large the change is going to be in the end, and how our planet will look like when we leave it for the next generations.