Scientists Scramble to Study Italian Glacier before Climate Change Melts It

calderone glacier in abruzzo is shrinking rapidly

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Europe’s southernmost glacier is an impending victim of climate change. Italian scientists hope to study and sample it before it melts completely. Glaciers are our largest sign of a changing climate.

Glacier in Alaska
Glaciers feature prominently in the Earth’s water cycle, as almost 10 percent of the world’s land mass is covered with glaciers and ice caps. Photo by Ingo70 / Shutterstock

Researchers, based in Italy, are rushing to sample the Calderone glacier before it melts completely and disappears due to rising temperatures around the globe. An initial radar survey was conducted on March 13, with another visit planned for April, to drill into and sample the glacier itself. Scientists expect to find an 80-foot-thick layer of ice covering the glacier when they return.

Earth’s ice and snow cover are known as a cryosphere, which responds to changing temperatures. In his video series Earth’s Changing Climate, Dr. Richard Wolfson, the Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics at Middlebury College, outlines several visible examples of climate change.

“Cryosphere” Is Just Fun to Say

“The cryosphere refers to the ice and snow that exist at the surface of the Earth; some of it in the form of icecaps on places like Greenland and Antarctica, some of it in the form of floating sea ice, some of it in the form of mountain glaciers, some of it in the form of the seasonal ice and snow that falls in the temperate climates, and so on,” Dr. Wolfson said. “The cryosphere responds to changes in temperatures.”

However, much like if you leave a bag of ice sitting out in a 70-degree house, the snow and ice cover on Earth don’t disappear immediately. They take time. The changes in the cryosphere indicate long-term trends in climate. One major indicator of this is mountain glaciers, which are—as the name implies—bodies of ice found on mountains. Italy’s Calderone glacier is one such glacier, glowing in the Apennine Mountains in Abruzzo.

“If you look at mountain glaciers around the world, you will find that in many, many cases, you find substantial and dramatic retreat of glaciers,” Dr. Wolfson said. “Most mountain glaciers’ lengths remained relatively constant until a few decades ago, and then most began declining in length of the glacier. This decline has been particularly steep in recent decades, time that coincides with [a] steep increase in world temperature.”

Examples and Misleading Exceptions

One example of retreating mountain glaciers, besides in Italy, is in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. Dr. Wolfson said that in the 1920s, glaciers in the Cascades filled entire valleys and have since retreated. Not only is the area of ice far smaller, but the remaining ice has also become thinner, as well. In Alaska, mountain glaciers that filled whole valleys in the 1940s are now lakes.

Some apparent exceptions to this trend even seem to prove the rule.

“Science is subtle, and there are other effects besides the warming of the planet that affect some of these things,” Dr. Wolfson said. “What a glacier does is determined by a balance between its melting or ‘calving off’ of ice at the point where it reaches the sea—if it does—and the accumulation of snowfall on the glacier. One of the effects of climate change may be to cause more precipitation, and so some glaciers, depending on exactly how they’re situated, may actually grow under global warming because they get more precipitation falling as snow and adding to the glacier.”

Reducing climate change may not be easy, but it is possible. If it can be stemmed, vital bodies of ice both on mountains and in the polar icecaps can be saved.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily