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This Swiss Town Is Protecting Its Glacier With a Blanket

But a high-tech solution might be on the way

The oldest glacier in the Alps is protected by special white blankets to prevent it from melting. (Urs Flueeler/Keystone via AP)

As temperatures rise, glaciers melt and shrink. Glacial melting, scientists agree, is linked to climate change caused by human activity.

In the Swiss Alps, efforts to stop this trend have become commonplace. Each year, for example, a group of residents makes its way to the Rhône Glacier to cover up the ice in huge white blankets that reflect the sun to prevent melting, reports Rafi Letzter of Live Science.

The blankets might seem like a quick fix or gimmick, but they could reduce seasonal melting by up to 70 percent, reported Agence France-Presse in 2015.

The residents near the Swiss glacier have used the blankets every summer for the last eight years, Zoë Schlanger reports for Quartz. It's a popular tourist destination, but the ice has been shrinking over the last 10 years. About 131 feet of the roughly 5-mile-long glacier have disappeared in that time. 

It's worked well enough that the same strategy is being put to use for glaciers in Italy and Germany, too.

And it's not the only effort to stop or slow glacial melting. Scientists are now proposing higher-tech solutions to futher slow the impact of global warming on glacial ice around the world, writes E&E News' Chelsea Harvey. 

One idea is to build mounds of sand and stone underwater at the mouth of at-risk glaciers near the sea, such as Thwaites Glacier in the Antarctic. The walls, which would stretch for miles on the seafloor, would slow or reverse their collapse.

Robinson Meyer reported on this proposal for The Atlantic in January. He explained that if these mounds work, glaciers that would otherwise collapse in 100 years could last for another millennium. The proposal would not only protect the glacier but also hold off sea-level rise by preventing the meltwater from entering the ocean.

Last year, another group of scientists came up with a plan to cover a portion of glaciers in the Swiss Alps with artificial snow, reported last year. The idea was a higher-tech version of the huge blankets; both the blankets and the snow reflect the sun rather than absorbing it.

Unlike the use of blankets to protect ice, these ideas are still hypothetical. So whether these fixes have any real potential on a large, real-life scale remains to be seen. Another limitation is that these proposals would be ineffective without efforts to curb climate change.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, human activity within the past few hundred years has raised the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 40 percent, and it's these heat-trapping gases that are responsible for climate warming and glacier retreat.

"Even if you have a way of restoring ice in the Arctic, it does not solve the CO2 problem, it doesn't solve acidification of the oceans, it doesn't fully decrease temperatures," Steven Desch, a physicist at Arizona State University, told Harvey. "It helps, but it doesn't solve anything."

At least in the Alps, residents think they have found a solution, even if it's a temporary one.

About Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. She has written for Columbia Journalism Review, BBC Future, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and Pacific Standard.

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