2020•08•07 Bolzano, Italy
While most glaciers always move and the falling of ice blocks from the glacier tongue at Mont Blanc is a usual phenomenon, the movements of the Planpincieux glacier have accelerated significantly over the last years. The glacier currently shifts with a speed of 50-60 cm per day, compared to only about 30 cm per day in 2019. Rising temperatures lead to more melting water in the glacier body, contributing to accelerated movements. In addition, reduced snowfall in winter leads to the glacier losing volume, especially so since the year 2000. Due to its morphological setting, at the Planpincieux glacier, one of many glaciers of the Mont Blanc massif, ice blocks have always fallen over the edge as the glacier ends at a very steep, almost vertical slope, but the speed and magnitude at which this is happening can be linked back to climate change.
Should the 250.000 m³ bloc of ice collapse, it would mean a threat for lives and severe damages to exposed buildings and road infrastructure, and this would have an impact on the economy, especially for the tourism industry of the Val Ferret and beyond. The Italian authorities have ordered evacuations and closed off roads, which are crucial disaster risk mitigation steps, but it only addresses the short-term risks. We need a much stronger focus on longer-term prevention of such events, and this can only be achieved through climate change mitigation.
Long-term change of glacier masses in this dimension will change the whole ecological system. The large amount of sediments released will lead to mudflows, which would destabilize surrounding slopes. Slope is the area between planes or valleys and peaks on the top, where many hazardous processes such as rock falls, landslides and avalanches take place. Mudflows will also negatively impact the hydrology of the mountainous regions by feeding less water into the ecological system.
Globally, the impact of glacier melting on social and ecological systems and the risk for safety and well-being of people living in glacier surroundings cannot be stressed enough. In large mountain ranges, such as the Himalayas or the Andes, the impact of glacier melting is far more severe than the risk of the Mount Blanc collapse. Consequences include Glacier Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) as a risk for many valleys in the Himalayas and severe water shortages, as glaciers are often the only source for water in many mountain regions, particularly the Andes.
Monitoring and early warning systems are extremely important to support decision makers in ordering evacuations, protecting lives and mitigating fatal short-term consequences. The root causes of glacier collapses can however only be addressed by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reversing climate change. For many glaciers, this will already be too late, but for those still in existence, rapid action must be taken.
The Global Mountain Safeguard Research (GLOMOS) is a collaborative programme and scientific alliance between the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and Eurac Research based in Bolzano, Italy. It conducts applied and transdisciplinary research to support livelihoods and sustainable mountain development. GLOMOS also facilitates a greater recognition of mountain-related topics within international frameworks and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.