Melting Glaciers

Hiking the Untersulzbachtal

At the beginning of October, 2014 I joined a small group to hike to the Untersulzbachtal Glacier in Austria’s Hohe Tauern National Park  I was one of the speakers at the European Wilderness Society’s Wilderness Academy Days at the park’s visitor center. With our little expedition were several of the park managers and some scientists who have been monitoring the dramatic and rapid retreat of the glacier.  They wanted to give the glacier a bit of a checkup, to see how far it had melted back in the preceding weeks and to measure its retreat.

According to research published in September 2014, Austria has been hit with a 2 degrees celcius rise over the past 30 years.  This is higher than the average rate in temperature rise. Snowfall is not regular and reliable anymore. Austria’s Alpine glaciers are melting.  The Untersulzbachtal , which feeds this river, is just one of those rapidly melting glaciers.

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Melting Glaciers

Melting Glaciers in the Alps

It is estimated that the Alps in general have surrendered over half of their glaciers to climate change in the last 50 years.  Twenty percent of that loss has happened since 1985.  It hasn’t been this warm since the Roman days when Augustus conquered the Alpine tribes and the empire carved roads – and copper mines – into some of the most remote valleys of the region.  The changes in the precipitation patterns brought on by the warming are altering the way water moves across the landscape.  The summers are drier, the winters are seeing more flooding and landslides and the aquifers are simply not as reliable as they once were.  Melting glaciers high in the mountain valley are changing the face of central Europe.

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Melting Glaciers

Easy to Breathe

This section of the Alps are made of these amazing gneiss and slate outcroppings but the Untersulzbachtal  valley is a bit unique because it is dominated by tightly compressed limestones with granite windows.  Everywhere in the valley were waterfalls spilling from the steep cliffs and careening down through stands of broadleaves going yellow and orange for the fall.  The air was moist and negative ions.  It was the kind of air that really helps my asthma, calming my lungs, allowing my blood to fill to oxygen.  I was breathing deeply and slowly and I felt fabulous for the whole 7 hour hike.

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Melting Glaciers

Wilderness for Adaptation

According to the report referenced above, the average temperatures in Austria could hit upwards of 3.5 percent.  Already, Austrian ski areas are suffering and that kind of temperature increase could hit the flora of the region pretty hard:

 “Glacier recession has led to an upward migration of Alpine plants at a rate of 0.5-4 meters per decade. In the long run, lowland plants will displace Alpine species to ever-higher altitudes until they simply have nowhere to go at all, effectively forcing them into extinction,” the WWF has stated.

The mountains could also be hit by pathogens from southern climates, “bringing diseases against which the flora and fauna of the Alps have no defense.”

I’m of the opinion that there really isn’t anything that we can do about the coming changes or the melting glaciers at this point except to adapt. One of the best ways to deal is to allow Mother Nature to adapt on her own, going through the convulsions of a changing ecosystem without the disruptive hand of humankind to make a further mess of things. The upper portions of the valley are managed as a wilderness area. The lower area is still heavily grazed and managed for a powerfully influential hunting community.  Better would be to manage the whole valley as wilderness and allow natural processes to reshape the ecosystem in its own way.

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Melting Glaciers


We saw quite a few chamois on the steep cliffs and slopes above the valley but none of them were close enough for a good picture.  The best views were with binoculars.  The Chamois is a mountain goat native to Europe and is spread over the whole continent from the Pyrenees to the Carpathians in Romania.   The bulk of the estimated 500,000 chamois are found in the Alps where the population is relatively stable despite their being prized by the hunting community.   Once, we came around a low rise and a small herd was bedded down in the willows above us.  We couldn’t see them but we could hear the sweat, soft whistle that serves them as a warming.

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Melting Glaciers

Just not ugly…

Ya….it wasn’t an ugly hike.  That is for sure.

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Melting Glaciers

Boots and Bodies

Once the scientists with the group understood my interest in archaeology they took to listing all the ancient items that had been found over the summer spilling out from the melting glaciers in the region.  These included boots, shoes, Victorian umbrellas, an early camera, a hat made in Britain and bodies….yes.  Just over the border in Italy the corpses of soldiers killed the horrific Alpine battles of World War I are spilling out of retreating glaciers.  And No.  Glaciers aren’t growing as the climate liars would have it. When we got up close to the glacier we could see the markings on the rocks where researchers at traced the front edge of the glacier over the preceding decades.  The retreat, just since last year was dramatic.

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Check out the Little Movie I Made Along the Way…..


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Melting Glaciers

They Come Back FAST

RIGHT at the very edge of the melting glaciers….in a pile of rocks that at the start of the summer lay under feet of ice, I found grasses and a number of other small plants looking strong and healthy.  Pretty stunning.  Severel meters further from the rim of the ice on land that had been exposed for 2-3 years the glacial till was filling in with all sorts of life.  I even saw a little moth or butterfly.  The ability of life to re-colonize an area so recently under the thick ice is astounding.  But, these might not just be modern plants.  A Canadian researcher has found that many of these plants are bryophytes that had been covered up thousands of years ago by the advancing glaciers, lay dormant and are now coming back to life:

But as La Farge and her colleagues studied the plant life more closely around Teardrop Glacier on Sverdrup Pass in the High Canadian Arctic, they discovered that the bryophytes, which ranged from 400 to 600 years old, had been entombed during the Little Ice Age that occurred between 1550 and 1850. With glaciers receding, the team noticed that these subglacial populations were not only intact, but were in pristine condition and growing.


The growth seen around the retreating ice also included cyanobacteria and green terrestrial algae. La Farge said many of the species they discovered here are entirely new to science.

“It’s a whole world of what’s coming out from underneath the glaciers that really needs to be studied,” La Farge said. “The glaciers are disappearing pretty fast – they’re going to expose all this terrestrial vegetation, and that’s going to have a big impact.”

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Melting Glaciers

The Glacier

I’d never been to a glacier before.  When we came over the rise and saw this site, I was pretty speechless.  For those of you who know me, that is something.  Yes, I was blown away.  There was a wind blowing right down the valley over the top of the glacier and it was bitter.  It was obvious the second I put my foot on the glacier that the darn thing was ice but for some reason…perhaps the dirt and rocks on top of the ice…I don’t know….I just thought I could walk ON the glacier with ease.  I clambered my way on top and tried to walk but….the darn thing is ice!  I fell right down.  It was slicker than snot on a brass doorknob in January.  Even now I’m surprised that that surprised me.  Dude!  It is ice!

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Melting Glaciers

Why is Glacier Ice Blue?

There is no word to describe the blue in the glacier other than STUNNING. Simply put, the ice at the bottom of the glacier is so densly compacted that it absorbs every color of the spectrum save blue.  Amazing:

Sometimes the glacial ice appears almost turquoise. Its crystalline structure strongly scatters blue light. The ice on a glacier has been there for a really long time and has been compacted down so that its structure is pretty different from the ice you normally see. Glacial ice is a lot different from the frozen water you get out of the freezer.


Glacial ice is not just frozen compacted snow. There are other things in the ice that make it much different from the ice in your home. Glaciers move through rock and soil as they carve their way down a slope. This means the ice is going to have a lot more ingredients than just water.”

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Melting Glaciers

Life Takes Hold

Again….just a few meters down from the edge of the glacier were little pools in the rock where just enough organic matter or soil got in to allow a stray grass seed to take root and establish life.   The continued retreat and eventual disappearance of many of these glaciers will have a profound impact on both humans and the surrounding ecosystems.  In places where glacial runoff feeds aquifers, fill reservoirs or water thirsty irrigated croplands the effects will be intense for we human beings.  For the countless other species dependant on glacial waters for survival the changes brought on by melting glaciers will be no less harmful and will in many cases result in yet another wave of extinctions.

Both Swiss and Austrian ski resorts have taken desperate measures to slow the rate of retreat by covering parts of glaciers with immense sheets of plastic.  I honestly can’t think of anything sillier and more deeply revealing about how modern cultures interact with the environment.

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Melting Glaciers



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  1. Comment by Taos Rag

    Taos Rag Reply November 20, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    Once again, this isSO fabulous. Thanks – The Taos Rag- ron hagg

  2. Comment by Judy Brown

    Judy Brown Reply November 20, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    WOW!!!!! Fabulous photos!

  3. Comment by Jim O'Donnell

    Jim O'Donnell Reply November 20, 2014 at 5:46 pm

    Thanks Ron! What an experience!

    • Comment by ron hagg

      ron hagg Reply November 20, 2014 at 10:50 am

      I trekked up to a glacier in New Zealand around 1984. Amazed at the blue color. Wonder if it is still there. ron

  4. Comment by Jim O'Donnell

    Jim O'Donnell Reply November 20, 2014 at 5:46 pm

    Thank you FAJ. What a great place!

  5. Comment by Jim McIntosh

    Jim McIntosh Reply November 20, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    Very good observation, Jim -"The ability of life to re-colonize an area so recently under the thick ice is astounding. "
    Nature can amaze us with its resilience.

  6. Comment by Daniela

    Daniela Reply November 20, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    Stunning photos Jim. Brought back beautiful memories of my childhood visiting the area during the summer months, my father taking us on the glacier. Thank you !

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply November 21, 2014 at 7:20 am

      Thats a great memory my fellow Leo!

  7. Comment by John Halbrook

    John Halbrook Reply November 20, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    Wonderful pics and text. Thanks for all of it. Wonder if you have seen the documentary–“Chasing Ice.”

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply November 21, 2014 at 7:19 am

      John, thank you so much. I have NOT seen that film but I’ve heard of it. Worth watching, eh?

  8. Comment by Jim O'Donnell

    Jim O'Donnell Reply November 21, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    Agreed. And what about those plants that have hibernated for thousands of years!!?!? Very cool. And just fascinating.

  9. Comment by John Leone

    John Leone Reply December 3, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    Great Fotos Jim !! I went to Alaska a while back and it was Cool !!

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