Residents in the Swiss Alps have been covering a glacier with blankets to prevent it from melting.

GENEVA — The Rhône Glacier is getting dressed up in white blankets and for a good cause: to protect it from further melting as a result of global warming.

Every spring for the past eight years, residents from the neighboring Obergoms area have trekked up the Swiss mountain to wrap thermal blankets around parts of the glacier and the ice grotto carved inside it.

The surrounding villages depend on the Rhône’s appeal — from its scenic trails to the spectacular ice cave — to boost the region’s economy. So residents started to spread blankets over the most vulnerable parts of the glacier to keep its snowy cover intact. 

This method prevents some of the snow and ice from thawing in the summer sun that has already wreaked damage to the Rhône and other glaciers.

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“It reduces the melting by 50% to 70%,” said David Volken, a Rhône glaciologist.

The 12,000-foot-high glacier, nestled in the southern part of the Swiss Alps, feeds the Rhône River and Lake Geneva but has also shrunk considerably over the past 150 years.

In the past decade alone, it lost an average of 33 feet of ice thickness, said Matthias Huss, head of the Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network. The melting water has formed a lake that is becoming larger every year.

That’s why the most vulnerable parts of the glacier, especially the grotto inside it, are swaddled in blankets made of heavy-duty fleece material from spring until fall. 

This process is not easy or cheap. The hauling and spreading of the tarpaulins takes several hours and costs thousands of dollars in material and manpower, mostly paid by local residents.

The effort is worth it.

“The blankets protect the underlying snow and ice from the sunlight. Another benefit is the thermal insulation they provide,” Huss said. They don’t  entirely stop the melting process, but “these blankets are very useful in slowing down ice loss locally,” he added.

The large sheets of material mainly cover the area closest to the ice cave, a popular tourist attraction at 7,500 feet above sea level. In the winter, this sparkly blue tunnel stretches 348 feet in length, but by the end of the summer the length shrinks by about 12 inches.

That’s why every May, a specially trained worker using a chainsaw re-carves the grotto to the original length — a laborious process that takes between three and four weeks, Volken said.

Even though blankets help preserve the grotto and some of the glacier, the area being covered is relatively small — about five acres — and “will never suffice to save a whole glacier,” Huss said.

While a few other glaciers in Switzerland are also blanketed during the summer months, most are not because they are too large. “This method will never be able to save our glaciers or to counteract the negative consequences of climate change,” Huss said.

Scientists like Huss and Volken predict that by 2100, the Rhône, along with other Alpine glaciers, will practically disappear, with only 10% of today’s ice remaining.

For now at least, the blankets help the Rhône Glacier keep its cool under pressure.






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