And That’s Just the Tip of the Iceberg: Bob Berwyn on European Glacier Melt

Ice caps, or the apex of glaciers, are delicate things. As the earth warms, they respond by rapidly thawing into their oceanic homes. This week on Sea Change Radio we speak to journalist Bob Berwyn of Inside Climate News to gain a deeper understanding of melting glaciers in Europe, the impact the melt is having on ecosystems, and what policymakers are doing to mitigate the effects.

00:01 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:20 Bob Berwyn (BB) – All glaciers all over the world are affected, and they’re all melting. With the one or two, like incredibly minor exceptions of very small pocket glaciers, they’re all melting. The glaciers in the European Alps, stretching from France across to Austria, will be 80 percent, 90% gone by the end of the century, even if we cut emissions to 0 now.

00:48 Narrator – Ice caps, or the apex of glaciers, are delicate things. As the earth warms, they respond by rapidly thawing into their oceanic homes. This week on Sea Change Radio we speak to journalist Bob Berwyn of Inside Climate News to gain a deeper understanding of melting glaciers in Europe, the impact the melt is having on ecosystems, and what policymakers are doing to mitigate the effects.

01:38 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on sea change radio by Bob Berwyn. He’s an environmental journalist for inside Climate News based in Europe, works on international science and climate policy. Bob, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

01:50 Bob Berwyn (BB) – Hi, Alex. Thanks for having me back.

01:53 AW – Always a pleasure to speak with you. The work that you did recently on glacier collapse I thought was noteworthy and I wanted to give you a chance to kind of expand on it further and share it with our listeners. What was the basic thesis of your piece, “More Mountain Glacier collapses feared as heat waves engulfed the northern hemisphere?”

02:14 BB – Right. Glaciers are something that I feel very close to. I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains my whole life, and they’re really one of the most visible things about global warming. To me, personally, to people who haven’t spent a lot of time around glaciers, not so much. And I’ve been struck by how fast some of the glaciers that I know really well that I’ve visited, you know, throughout my life. How much they’ve really changed, it’s just hard to describe to, you know, it’s like the Mississippi River disappearing. It’s a river of ice as big as the Mississippi, and it used to come down in a valley just a few feet below a lookout point. And if you go there today, it’s like 3 miles up the valley and it’s just sort of a white point in the distance. And that’s the change I’ve seen in my lifetime, and that’s on a global scale. Ice is disappearing and then this summer when Europe got hit by some severe heat waves. Really early. Even for the season, all the snow cover melted off the glaciers in the Alps. There are still hundreds of glaciers here. They’re melting back at fifty 6200 feet per year in a lot of cases, and shrinking down by 5 or 10 feet in thickness, so they’re losing huge amounts of mass. And then this year, when the heat wave hit early in the summer, some videos started circulating on social media showing several glaciers in two different parts of the world just disintegrating and turning into sort of a liquid giant avalanche, liquid mud boulder stream. Coming down, you know, not just a few 100 feet, but like a mile down the mountainside crashing down and sort of on a scale and even seasoned mountain scientists were taken aback and based on a few other stories that I’ve done over the years that focus specifically on climate change in the mountains, talking about how global warming is really going to affect mountains a lot more. I decided to look at this specific link between these dramatically collapsing glaciers and the heat waves.

04:38 AW – And some of this was written before the heat waves had really kind of flexed their muscles, so to speak. We’re seeing it real time and it and it’s really scary.

04:47 BB – And there have been other there have been other big mountain collapses since those systems to glaciers. Not anymore particularly dramatic glacier collapses at this point, but in Colorado, so close to home, a huge, huge slab of a peak around Rocky Mountain National Park, Hallett Peak broke away a few weeks ago, or maybe a little more than a month ago or so, and there’s, you know, one of the other stories that I wrote the title was specifically how global warming is destabilizing mountain slopes, and I explained a few different processes that have been documented scientifically. By let’s say Swiss scientists who have temperature gauges going, you know, meters deep into the rock and have documented 1/2 degree increase Celsius in temperature over a 10 year span at several meters deep into the rock. So you have to think about global warming. Not just heating up the air, creating a heat wave, but it’s like heating up the bones of the earth. It’s literally heating the earth itself. And part of what that’s doing is melting ice that’s been frozen up in those high mountains, the glaciers and ice that’s inside the rock, and cracks and fissures. Everybody knows rock is generally not monolithic. There are some types. And it’s melting and it’s also raining more and there’s more water getting in there. Then it kind of freezes the next winter and expands and widens the crack a little bit. And then at some point in the summer, when enough of it melts, when the warmth the heat penetrates or gets to a critical spot, you can have massive failures.

06:42 AW – So why don’t you put that in context, like the comparison between mountain, the southern glaciers and the big ice sheets up in the Arctic?

06:50 BB – So if the Greenland if the Greenland ice sheet and were a pancake, and Antarctica were an even bigger pancake, those are the two major ice sheet areas. Then the mountain glaciers would be about the. All put together would be up about the size of a cornflake compared to that, and an individual glacier the size of a sugar crystal, according to a Swiss glacier guide named Michael Zepp, who’s head of the World Monitoring Service, and so he measures these mass balance rates how fast the glaciers are melting converts it into sea level rise to let us know. So mountain glaciers are not a huge contributor, sure, but they do contribute and they will continue and at a higher rate than they do now.

07:43 AW – Well, they don’t necessarily contribute to sea level rise, but they’re a touchstone for scientists to measure a little more apples to apples in there because it’s not so vast it right you can see when the glaciers are gone on a mountain. They’re gone. It’s not like a just an iceberg falls off into the ocean and we try to then extrapolate what that means.

08:06 BB – They do actually contribute a bit to sea level rise increase too. I mean, all that water goes into the ocean. And think about when you know things like floating ice in the ocean melts. It doesn’t actually increase sea level rise. It has to be land-based ice. So those big ice sheets have to slide off and start melting which they’re doing. But you’re right, there are really a dramatic, dramatic indicator of climate change in the mountains. Anybody could see it with their own eyes.

08:34 AW – You mentioned the mountain slope. What exactly are scientists looking for there? What are the problems that it poses when a slope is adjusted by a melting glacier?

08:47 BB – Subsequently, after the glaciers melt, there can be increased rockfall. Well, so some infrastructure can be impacted. High Mountain Roads, Railroad tracks that cross the mountains. That’s happening increasingly in some parts of the Alps and we’ve seen similar extreme events not in the exact same form up in the Pacific Northwest where. Also, you know you have glaciers melting fast, adding to river flooding downstream and so on.

09:19 AW – And give us an idea of the areas that we’re talking about here. Maybe narrow down some of the highlights from your research.

09:28 BB – So one of the glacier collapses that caught my eye was on the Marmolada Glacier in southern in the Southern Alps in northern Italy, and they’d had a winter long drought there and heated up really early in the spring. This kind of amplifies itself if the mountains are bare of snow. By early June, as they were, they start to absorb more heat and justice. Radiate that heat around all glaciers all over the world are affected, and they’re all melting with one or two. Like incredibly minor exceptions of very small pocket glaciers, they’re all melting the glaciers. In the European Alps, stretching from France across to Austria, will be 80 percent, 90% gone by the end of the century, even if we cut emissions to 0 now.

10:37 (Music Break)

11:33 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to environmental journalist Bob Berwyn from Inside Climate News. So you mentioned how even if we cut emissions to 0 now these glaciers, both the polar ice sheets and these mountainous glaciers are going to be rapidly declining. What are some of the ways that the science community is putting in policies to try to help mitigate the effects of these melting glaciers as much as possible?

12:07 BB – Yeah, that’s a really good. So in some areas, monitoring can be a way to really help protect people from the risk of melting glaciers and their associated effects like more rockslides and avalanches and things like that? It’s a pretty complex question. I’m not sure what you can do. I mean one of the big impacts of melting glaciers is going to be loss of water supplies. So you have to think of a way to you’re going to have to think of a way to make do with probably with less water, or at best maybe the same amount of water but a lot more coming in rain rather than in form of snow and ice. Which melts slowly and kind of, you know, follows a natural cycle of trickling down. You can kind of gradually fill reservoirs. That may not be the case in the future.

13:12 AW – We see these drying up rivers all over Europe and then we also are hearing that the glaciers are melting and contributing to rising sea levels. Is there a way to kind of feed these dying rivers with the melting glaciers?

13:27 BB – That’s a, that’s a good question. You know some of them are, some of them are not connected to to mountain glacial areas. So the the climate of Europe is relatively wet. There’s year round precipitation usually and I guess you could do some engineering if there was an area that was suitable for a pipeline or something, but I don’t think that’s the kind of thing that, you know, we need to even be thinking about at all. But what I wanted to say too is that right now the melting glaciers actually are increasing stream flows in some rivers and streams. And again, rivers are pretty complex, right? They don’t all start at the base of the glacier. Some just start out in like a little forested hump of land and kind of gradually meander and stuff, but there’s definitely increased flows in some streams directly below glaciers. And one of the things that you know some countries are considering are more reservoirs higher up, smaller series of reservoirs that would kind of mimic. The effect of the glacier storing frozen precipitation, except you’re storing liquid precipitation. I imagine that’s going to be in areas where it’s feasible, it’ll help, I wanted to say also about science and what science is doing here, the monitoring is important to protect it in terms of protecting people. And I want to take Switzerland as the example of the countries that’s probably the most advanced on this. And they do laser measurements of bulges and mountains that might threaten a highway or a town or block a river and cause a flood. And they hope to have sort of an early warning system or they could, where they can at least warn people to get out of the way. So that’s kind of what you’re what you’re down to, and that’s something that other countries can learn from. There’s a place in South America that I’ve written about a few times. I’ve not been there in Peru in the Andes, where a whole town is threatened by what’s called the glacial outburst flood? So the town sits in a dry valley at the down at the very edge of the Andes, think of it as kind of like almost Denver maybe or something and, you know, pretty dusty. But 10 miles up, 15,000 feet up, there’s a big glacier above a lake, and there’s a huge concern that that thing could burst its stem. And flood the town and it’s intensely monitored by scientists, you know, checking the water levels, measuring the glacier, trying to make sure that people can get out of the way if they have to.

16:31 AW – So Bob, we’re talking about some of these harrowing stories of climate affecting the planet and then when we see something that’s not directly affecting a small village in the Alps, let’s say, or when it’s not right in our face, why should we care? Make the case for why the glaciers are just as important as anything else in this in the in an ecosystem, in peril.

17:09 BB – So again, when the when the visual images of these incredibly dramatic glacier collapses caught my eye, the first thing I thought was. This is another one of those pieces in the trend of things are happening faster than expected, sooner than expected. And the second thing that I felt it, it made me think about the glaciers that I know really well. But I’ve visited and I’ve skied on and climbed on, and it made me feel really sad and it made me feel a really deep sense of loss, even in the generational loss in in the sense that my son, who also loves the mountains, and I’ve passed that on to him. We’ll never see the same landscapes that I saw, and we’ll only have pictures and descriptions and. Literally places that I was able to ski when I was his age 25. You can’t ski anymore. There’s no, there’s no glacier left to ski on and these are sort of back country mountaineering tracks.

18:13 AW – It’s almost analogous to the native peoples on North America from 200 years ago, how they got to see the plains just dotted by bison and now you see a few here or there and it’s just, it’s a very, very different landscape, I think, I think you can compare it to that because it’s an emotional loss and a cultural loss.

18:38 BB – And in Switzerland they’ve actually had and probably some other places they’ve had real ceremonies with people gathering where a glacier used to be and talking about what it what it means. To them, what it meant to them and how they feel about it being gone, it’s part of their it’s part of the culture. In the European Alps there’s songs, there’s poems, there’s books, there’s, you know, the glaciers have always been there and now they’re not going to be there. There will be a few patches of remnant ice up under some, you know, big N facing crags, but these rivers of ice that we’ve all seen pictures of that literally fill a valley 100 feet deep. They’re melting before our very eyes and. That whole idea makes me feel sad that that we’re going to lose that.

19:32 AW – Have we been able to glean how these melting glaciers are affecting flora and fauna in the region?

19:39 BB – Yes, I can give you some specific examples of things I’ve reported on gone back closer to home. In Rocky Mountain National Park, there are several types of insects that are dependent on glacial melt that are threatened with extinction. Because of the loss of glaciers there and there, of course food for the fish that live in the streams there, and so these things always have a ripple effect through ecosystems in the European Alps, I can’t think of as specifically documented. A thing right now, but I would say that there are there’s a fish related to Arctic chubs that lives, is native to European rivers, and depends on the guests by its name on really cold water. And when the glaciers are gone, those streams are all going to warm up. So any fish, any sort of aquatic plants or snails that depend on a certain water temperature are going to see a big change and are potentially threatened by the loss of that of that water source.

20:49 AW – You’ve done some pieces on wolves and Beavers in the West and how their regeneration has helped to revitalize regions. It’s a slight pivot from our discussion on the glaciers, but it reinforces the fact that this is also interconnected.

21:08 BB – Yes, it does, and it is a pivot. But you asked me before, what can scientists do about the loss of glaciers? And so I talked about water storage, I talked about people building dams higher up in the mountains. What I didn’t mention is, is that in some cases in some areas it may be appropriate to reintroduce beavers who might be able to help us replace again some of the storage functions of glaciers? For a lot of areas, you have to think of glaciers as big frozen water tanks that for 10,000 years since the last Ice Age have been sort of melting in summer when it’s warm, and they’re especially important in the late summer when stuff is dry and then they’ve been replenished more or less by snowfall falling and compressing and they kind of stayed in a kind of a stable state. And below them are streams that feed into rivers. And those rivers go to the sea, so that whole, that whole system is connected like that.

22:26 (Music Break)

23:39 AW – This is Alex Wise on sea change radio, and I’m speaking to environmental journalist Bob Berwyn from Inside Climate News. So Bob, you’re based in in Europe right now, you’re in Montenegro. Can you give listeners who are have not been able to get to Europe what this summer has been like and how it has just affected so many people personally? Do you think it could accelerate some of the transitions from fossil fuels from a policymaker standpoint?

24:12 BB – Let me answer the first part of your question first.  I know that England hit 40 degrees Celsius for the first time ever this year, and the heat wave that hit there was short and fierce, and the earliest estimates I saw that it killed a few 100 people. Heat waves in northwestern Europe have been the most intense and prevalent, and they’ve wiped out crops and they’ve dried out the rivers that you have mentioned a few times during the interview. And have also resulted in a lot of forest fires in Spain and France and Portugal. Once again, I do think that I saw not long ago that it’s on a record pace for wildfires for Europe for this year. And in the southern Balkans where I am well, I’ve seen pomegranate trees which are really heat resistant. Like sizzled and the fruit cooked on the trees and figs like exploding because it’s too hot. And so people are losing crops here and in the last two weeks to three weeks I saw several forest fires very, very close to areas that I was in here in in southern Montenegro.

25:39 AW – And can you give us an idea of what we’re looking at in terms of air conditioning penetration rates in European countries like Montenegro in the face of this intense?

25:51 BB – I would say that air conditioning is actually pretty widespread and they have a good energy grid. And, you know, there are definitely people who don’t have it. But you asked me about policymakers too. They already know all this, so one would hope that they would see an even greater urgency now and act more expeditiously and the world has a chance at COP 27, the annual climate conference coming up in November. Once again to united, hopefully take some meaningful steps in that direction, but I think all of us too need to, you know, to find ways to be part of the solution and to try and be the change. I don’t want to steal anybody else’s famous quote, but it seems appropriate. And to affect the change, to make the change that we want to see and talk to our friends. I follow climate scientists and social scientists on social media and they say, yeah, the best thing to talk about it and also to try and have a positive outlook on it. It’s hard for me because of the stuff that I report. And the way I do it is, is that and we talked about this about, well, we talked about the Marshall Fire and a little bit now is I can actually easily see a world that’s more resilient and better able to withstand climate impacts. And I see clear paths to slowing emissions and hopefully stabilizing the climate. So don’t lose hope. And find some of those things and figure out how you could be part of making those things happen. I’m not going to rely on policymakers to do it. And, you know, vote.

27:47 AW – Well, your coverage gives us all a little bit of hope and it’s meaningful and and it’s important to get a clear eyed perspective on our changing planet and climate. Bob Berwyn, thanks so much for being my guest. On Sea Change Radio.

28:01 BB – Thanks, Alex.

28:17 AW – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Antibalas, Bob Dylan and Steel Pulse. Check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.