Climate Change Has Shrunk Sweden’s Highest Peak

The southern peak of the Kebnekaise mountain has been deemed shorter than its northern counterpart for the first time since measurements began in 1880

View from the southern summit of Kebnekaise in 2012 CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

Kebnekaise, part of the Scandinavian Mountains, has two main peaks: a southern one, which is covered in glaciers, and a northern one, which is free of ice. Since they were first measured nearly 140 years ago, the southern peak has been the taller of the two, and was in fact the highest mountain peak Sweden. But, as Jon Henley reports for the Guardian, Kebnekaise’s southern peak has lost its lofty title, due to climbing temperatures that have been melting the glacier at its summit.

Researchers began to suspect that the peak had in fact shrunk lower than its northern counterpart last year, but their “measurements [at the time] were not precise enough,” Gunhild Ninis Rosqvist, a professor of geography at Stockholm University who has been monitoring the glacier for several years, tells Henley. Now we can say with certainty: we are accurate to within a couple of centimeters,” she adds.

The latest measurements were collected on September 3 with the help of GPS technology, according to the Local Sweden. Kebnekaise's southern peak now clocks in at 2095.6 meters (around 6,875 feet), making it 1.2 meters (nearly 4 feet) lower than the northern peak. This is the shortest that the southern peak has been since measurements began in 1880, and all told, the peak has lost 24 meters (around 79 feet) in height over the past 50 years.

Once winter hits, the glacier will likely expand again and creep back up over the northern peak, but scientists believe that the northern peak will eventually become the tallest throughout the year. Experts who have been watching Kebnekaise’s glacier melt are not surprised by the recent measurements. At the same time, seeing Sweden’s famed peak shrink to unprecedented lows is “emotionally quite something,” Ninis Rosqvist tells Henley. “The mountains are changing so fast—higher temperatures, less snow, winter rain.”

A glaring indication of climate change in Sweden are the country’s summer temperatures, which have been “unusually hot” over the past ten years, according to Reuters. Last year was particularly anomalous for the Nordic nation. Multiple locations in southern and central Sweden—including Stockholm, Uppsala and Lund—experienced their warmest summers on record. The municipality of Hästveda was the hottest of them all, with temperatures climbing as high as 34.6 degrees Celsius (around 94 degrees Fahrenheit) in late July. Sweltering and dry conditions triggered forest fires all the way up to the Arctic circle, with the flames burning through some 25,000 hectares of land.

Warmer-than-usual weather has been causing glaciers to melt at disconcertingly fast rates—not only in Sweden, but around the world. Switzerland has taken to swaddling its Rhône Glacier in white blankets, in the hope of reflecting the sunlight and staving off the glacier’s decline. Iceland recently erected a memorial plaque to the Okjokull glacier, which was declared “dead” in 2014 after it became too thin to move.

The shrinking of Kebnekaise's iconic southern peak is yet another “powerful symbol of change,” Ninis Rosqvist tells Reuters. But she also makes it clear in her interview with Henley that climate change doesn’t need “any more symbols.”

“We don’t need to pile up more evidence,” she adds, “We can see the climate changing before our eyes up here, and we need to do something about it.”

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