See the largest glacier in France before it disappears

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France’s largest glacier once looked so mighty sliding down the granite slopes of Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak, that early explorers struggled to find the words to capture it.“You have to imagine your lake choppy with a strong wind, all frozen at once,” wrote British adventurer William Windham, one of the first tourists to explore the glacier in 1741. “Maybe even that wouldn’t happen. not the same appearance.

This description gave the place its current name – the Mer de Glace, the Mer de Glace. At that time and until the late 1980s, thousands of years of ice covered the rugged valley. Visitors walked from the nearby town of Chamonix to Montenvers, where the glacier was so close they only had to descend a few meters to touch it.

Today, the Mer de Glace remains the largest glacier in France and the second in the Alps. But it has also become a symbol of the rapid pace of global warming. Mont Blanc heats up more than twice as fast as the rest of the world. The Mer de Glace has been shrinking since the beginning of the 20th century, but the loss has accelerated over the past two decades. Since 1900, it has shrunk by about a third of its volume. In total, he lost about 1.5 cubic kilometers of ice. This equates to over half a million Olympic ice pools.

“Glaciers are symbols of climate change because it is the elements of nature that react to them the most quickly,” says French glaciologist Luc Moreau. “Solar radiation, temperature, and greenhouse gases are all invisible things, but measuring glaciers gives us information on all of them.”

Glaciers go through cycles of melting and freezing, losing mass in hot weather and recovering it once the temperature drops. When Moreau arrived in Chamonix in 1987, the Mer de Glace was able to recover much, if not more, of its volume during the winter. Now it is shrinking.

Regardless of global warming, glaciers in the Alps will lose about half of their 2017 volume by 2050, according to Harry Zekollari, a glaciologist at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. If humans continue to emit greenhouse gases at our current rate, glaciers in the Alps will lose about 90% of their volume by the end of the century, according to a model he and others have developed using data from the 4000 glaciers in the Alps. If emissions are aligned with the Paris climate agreement target of limiting warming to below 2 ° Celsius by the end of this century, they will lose about two-thirds. “We will be the ones to determine whether there is still ice left in the European Alps by the end of this century or not,” Zekollari says.

For decades, Chamonix has been considered the mountaineering capital of the world. Some of the world’s most famous climbers learned to climb and ice walk on the slopes of Mont Blanc. Every evening last year, the Aubergne-Rhône-Alpes region to which Chamonix belongs welcomed over 440,000 visitors, although the actual number of visitors fluctuates with the seasons and could have been much higher in certain months. Half of the people who visited did so for winter sports and spent around 21 billion euros ($ 24.7 billion), according to the region’s tourism authority.

Today’s visitors take a little red train from Chamonix to Montenvers, where they are treated to a view of the ice-free valley floor, a gray plain that another glaciologist, Jean-Baptiste Bosson, describes as a “Lake of pebbles”. Tourists who want to see the glacier itself have to descend a set of steep metal steps to reach a cave carved out of the ice. As the Mer de Glace receded deeper into the valley, new caves had to be carved and more steps had to be added. There were three stages in total in 1988; 118 by 2000. Today there are over 500, and more are being added all the time.

Among those who feel the effects of these changes first-hand, almost 200 years ago, the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, the first organization to make mountain guides a formal profession. Olivier Greber, the president of the Company, remembers the time when it was possible to hurtle down the glacier, the famous descent of the Vallée Blanche, to the bottom of the valley and to reach the Montenvers station without removing your skis. . Now the same descent requires a 15 minute walk through some rocks that have been crushed by the glacier.

He and the other guides adapted their routes to avoid areas covered by increasingly delicate frozen ground called permafrost, and got used to answering visitors’ questions about climate change. “There is sometimes a certain anxiety in seeing the Mer de Glace before it is gone,” says Greber. This kind of tourism is not necessarily bad, he says. “Awareness is important because we can’t protect the things we don’t like.”

Yet, he says, he is convinced that Chamonix and the Mer de Glace region will remain an attractive destination.

“We went through a golden time in which we imagined we had something that would never change,” says Greber. “In fact, that is changing, but we will continue to adapt.”

© 2020 Bloomberg LP

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