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Can Snow Machines Save Swiss Glaciers?

As many as 4,000 could be deployed to insulate ice on Morteratsch

As many as 4,000 snow machines could soon preserve the ice on this Swiss glacier. (Archiv Günter Seggebäing/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

The world’s glaciers are in trouble. And Switzerland, home of the famed Alps, is more than aware of the problems that face their once bountiful glaciers. But as Andy Coghlan reports for New Scientist, one group of scientists have an unexpected solution: artificially generated snow. They’ve joined with Swiss officials in an ambitious plan to cover a portion of the glaciers’ fragile ice using snow machines.

The plan sounds a bit crazy, but it just might work. The scientists recently outlined their idea at the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union. They’ll first spend a season making snow and blowing it onto an artificial glacier. If that works, they hope that the Swiss government will fund a larger project, enlisting 4,000 snow machines to shoot snow over the Morteratsch glacier in Eastern Switzerland. The researchers think it shouldn't take much snow to make a big impact. Based on their calculations, just a few centimeters across an area less than a quarter square mile large should do the trick.

Snow performs an important role in keeping glacial ice from melting. It has what's known as a high albedo, or reflectivity. Snow that’s covering sea ice can reflect up to 90 percent of the sun’s rays, providing a vital source of insulation, according to the National Snow & Ice Data Center. The effect is the same on glaciers, where snow’s bright color bounces the sun’s rays away from the fragile ice.

But warmer spring seasons mean less snow, and the region has been getting less and less snow as temperatures rise. As Aamna Mohdin reports for Quartz, the Alps are projected to lose as much as 30 percent of their snow cover if global warming stays below the 2015 Paris Agreement’s 2 degrees Celsius target, and as much as 70 percent could be lost if the climate gets even warmer. Pollution can also affect snow on glaciers, darkening it and causing it to take in more heat from the sun. And with every drop of melted ice, Swiss mountains become less and less stable

Snow machines aren’t the first thing scientists have used to try to save glacial ice. As Nina Larson reports for the Agence France-Presse, white blankets have been used to reduce ice melt atop Switzerland’s Rhone glacier. Snow machines are a more high-tech solution, but there’s another way to save Alpine glaciers: Slow global climate change by emitting fewer greenhouse gases. Of course, the entire world would need to get on board with that plan—and it wouldn’t take effect immediately. But in the short term at least, snow machines might provide the melting glaciers a little relief.

(h/t Quartz)

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