The slow death of a Swiss glacier

August 23, 2013, 1 Comment

Morteratsch climbersMorteratsch. Its name starts with the word ‘death’ so maybe it’s no surprise that this glacier is dying. And its death by a million droplets is visible to every visitor taking the ever-lengthening path to see the retreating tongue. Walking up the long valley to the ice is like a funeral procession, with the markers showing the extent of the glacier in certain decades acting as gravestones along the route.

Morteratsch first viewYou can see the glacier in the distance at the head of the valley but it’s merely a whitish-grey backdrop to a lovely rural walk. At the open end of the valley, the ice has been gone long enough for the landscape to be greener and softer, with trees and bushes alongside the rushing river of meltwater (which actually ends up in the Danube). The further back you go, the starker and rockier it becomes.

Morteratsch 1970 signThe Morteratsch glacier once reached right down to the end of the valley, so that when the Bernina railway was completed in 1910, a station of the same name was built near the glacier’s tongue for tourists wanting to get off and see the frozen giant. The station is still there but the glacier in now an hour’s walk away up the valley, with the decades each marked to show how great the retreat has been.

Morteratsch 2000 signAnd the pace is quickening. What had been an average retreat of 17 metres a year has increased to 30 metres a year in the last decade, so that even the year 2000 marker is some distance from the current tip of the ice field. Once you’re closer to the glacier, the path ends but you can scramble over the rocky moraine and walk right up to the icy wall itself. Or onto the ice, with a guide.

Morteratsch iceIt’s truly impressive to stand beside a glistening blue-white cliff of ice, even if the glacier isn’t sparkling like a toothpaste ad. This is the messy end of glacial movement, with the surface covered in a dirty layer of moraine and ice calving off in giant chunks. No wonder there’s a sign warning of the dangers – as this report from Swiss TV showed, the ice can change very quickly.

Morteratsch valleySome people say that climate change isn’t happening. I suggest they go to Graubünden and spend the day walking up a valley that was once filled with ice (pictured above today) and explain why the glacial retreat is now double what it used to be.

That aside, it’s a relatively easy and very enjoyable 2-hour walk there and back, and a living geography lesson to boot. A prefect day out near Pontresina.

One Comment on "The slow death of a Swiss glacier"

  1. Hilda Lopez Roberts Sunday February 15th, 2015 at 01:59 AM · Reply

    Thank you for the article. In planning a trip to Switzerland I became curious about this glacier. In looking at pictures of the glacier I learned about the article. It is really sad. The book a Slow Train to Switzerland sounds very interesting.

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