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Snow Machines and Saving Dying Glaciers: Scientists Concoct Crazy Plan to Regrow Swiss Peaks

May 02, 2017 07:27 AM EDT
Europe's Melting Glaciers: Rhone
Swiss glaciers are disappearing so scientists launch a crazy plan to save them.
(Photo : Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Switzerland's breathtaking glaciers are melting rapidly, so scientists are on a desperate mission to save it. Artificial snow could be the key in protecting these large masses of ice from further degradation -- at least the team behind the new project hopes so.

According to a report from New Scientist, the plan involves creating artificial snow and blowing it over Switzerland's iconic Morteratsch glacier every summer in an attempt to protect the ice and help the glacier begin growing once again.

The plan is certainly out of the box and would be the first of its kind attempted in the world. Johannes Oerlemans of Utrecht University in Netherlands came up with the solution from the knowledge that the snow reflects sunlight. When the snow disappears, the harsh rays of the sun heats the ice directly and melts it, shrinking the glacier.

"As long as there's snow on top, the ice beneath is unaffected," Oerlemans explained in the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, Austria last week.

One of the most easily accessible glaciers, Morteratsch, is a huge tourist draw, but continues to rapidly shrink as an effect of the increasingly hot temperatures. Its length went from 8.5 kilometers in 1860 to just 6 kilometers today. The glaciers are estimated to lose 30 to 40 meters every year.

Locals reached out to Oerlemans to help them save their local treasure, suggesting a method that helped a smaller glacier Diavolezzafirn grow up to 8 meters in a single decade. The scientist found that the method -- a snowy covering -- could be effective in helping Morteratsch recover up to 800 meters in 20 years.

Oerlemans' estimations predicted that a few centimeters of artificial snow on a half a square kilometer plateau every summer could be enough to cover the ice effectively. As large as Morteratsch is, it would need about 4,000 snow machines to complete the project.

A pilot project funded by the locals are already in the works. For this pioneering plan, the team will begin by blowing artificial snow on a small, artificial glacier during an entire summer. The team is hoping they will be able to protect the ice for the season, which will help them pitch a concrete large-scale project to the Swiss government for Morteratsch.

It's not just Switzerland that is experiencing disappearing glaciers in recent years. Tourists are driven to the farthest corners of the world to get a glimpse of famous glaciers before they melt away, particularly the ones in Iceland.

"Due to climate change, the perception is out there that the glaciers will be gone tomorrow," Edward Huijbens, University of Akureyri professor and Icelandic Tourism Research Centre researcher, explained in an interview with Vice. "So this has generated a type of last chance to see tourism, and also a general fascination with glaciers."

Perhaps snow machines can turn things around for the glaciers.

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