PHOTOS: Scientists race to read Austria's melting climate archive

Plants grow near a lake in front of Jamtalferner glacier near Galtuer, Austria. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

WEISSEESPITZE, Austria — Scientists are racing to read a rapidly melting archive of climate data going back thousands of years: the inside of Austria’s Alpine glaciers.

Mountain glaciers are receding the world over as average global temperatures rise — a phenomenon that will be described in detail in a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this week.

Glaciers in Austria, on the eastern edge of the Alps, are particularly sensitive to climate change and have been shrinking even more rapidly than most, making it all the more urgent to examine their contents before they disappear, said Andrea Fischer, a scientist conducting the work.

“We are now roughly at 1920. The rest has already been lost — everything from 1920 until now,” Fischer, of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research in Innsbruck, said of her work seeking Austria’s oldest ice at the top of the Weisseespitze, a peak more than 11,000 feet high.

“In the next two years we will lose another 70 years (of ice and data),” she added, describing ice at the top of the glacier.

The cabin of a cable car makes its way uphill to the Sonnblick Observatory at 3,106 meters above sea level, in the Hohe Tauern mountain range near Rauris, Austria. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

At the top of this mountain, Fischer and her colleagues have drilled to the bottom of the comparatively undisturbed glacier to extract samples of its ice, which is being analyzed for information on the local climate thousands of years ago.

Fischer, whose work has contributed to the IPCC report, believes the ice could be 3,000 to 5,000 years old. Her samples are going through lab testing to date them.

The lower layers are more densely packed than those at the top, meaning that one meter of ice could include thousands of years of data.

“The ice is only a few meters thick. In a few years, this summit will be completely ice-free,” she said.

The Pasterze Glacier, Austria's largest, is seen below Johannisberg summit located in the Hohe Tauern mountain range, in the province of Carinthia. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

While analysis of other materials, such as tree trunks, can provide information on the air temperature in summer, glaciers’ ice is a rare source of information on precipitation, she said.

And much of it will soon be lost.

The challenge is to take current data on how the climate is changing and compare it with the information we have on the climate in previous centuries and millennia.

“The question is, how exceptional is this process? That is what we are determining with this drilling of the ice.” (Reuters)

Photography by Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Photos taken November 2018 and July 2019

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Meteorologist Elke Ludewig from the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics ZAMG, looks up an ice load scale at the Sonnblick Observatory. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
People walk on Pasterze Glacier. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
Visitors sit on the terrace of the Jamtal hut near Galtuer, Austria. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
A group of scientists from the Austrian Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research cross the Jamtalferner glacier. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
A group of ski tourists make their way across the snow-covered Jamtalferner glacier. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
Ice layers are seen inside the artificial ice tunnel of Schaufelferner glacier at Stubaier glacier ski resort near Neustift im Stubaital, Austria. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
A landslide is seen in the Jamtal valley near Galtür, Austria. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
Glaciologist Andrea Fischer from the Austrian Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research examines an ice core of Gepatschferner glacier at Weisseespitze summit at over 3,500 meters above sea level, near Feichten im Kaunertal, Austria. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
A person walks next to covered depots of snow to outlast the summer in a glacier ski resort near the village of St. Leonhard im Pitztal, Austria. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
Fischer and environmental physicist Pascal Bohleber inspect the thickness difference of the part of Schaufelferner glacier that is covered with a special fleece fabric protecting ice from sun and heat and the part that is not covered. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
Fischer checks a precipitation measuring station next to Jamtalferner glacier. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
A ski slope with snow cannons makes its way downhill to a station of a cable car on a sunny autumn day near the alpine village of Neustift im Stubaital, Austria. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
Fischer walks along the artificial ice tunnel of Schaufelferner glacier at Stubaier glacier ski resort. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
A view down at snowcapped mountains of Kaunertal valley near Feichten im Kaunertal, Austria. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
Fischer walks at the entrance of an ice cave of Jamtalferner glacier. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
A halo, an optical phenomenon from sunlight and ice crystals, rises above the Goldberg group mountains, seen from Sonnblick summit. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
The Jamtalferner glacier. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
Bohleber uses a chainsaw to cut out a sample of ice inside an artificial ice tunnel of Schaufelferner glacier . (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)
A co-pilot controls helicopter transportation of gear after an ice drilling run at Gepatschferner glacier at Weisseespitze summit. (Photo: Lisi Niesner/Reuters)


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