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Climate, Hydrology, and Alpine Glaciers

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CHANGE (Climate, Hydrology, and Alpine Glaciers)

Período documentado: 2018-06-01 hasta 2020-05-31

Mountain glaciers are sensitive indicators of the current global change. The glaciers currently still present in the European Alps are projected to lose a substantial part of their volume in the coming century. Their relatively large volume losses will have a profound impact on river runoff. Despite the growing number of studies from mountain glaciers, our understanding of the functioning of their hydrological system and thus the future evolution of these glaciers is far from complete. The original concept upon which this project builds is that the geological setting of the glacier bed influences the subglacial hydrology and glacier motion, which is one of key aspects to be considered when quantifying the contribution of glacier melt to stream runoff. In the light of this view, the specific objectives of the action were:
- to identify all glaciers (including the smallest) in the European Alps with the help of the most accurate and up-to-date global and regional glacier inventories, supported by remote sensing data,
- to predict the future evolution of glaciers under a range of climate scenarios, and
- to model hydrological system at the base of a glacier taking into account also the effects of different lithologies.

This project addressed climate-change related issues on both local and regional scales. On a local scale, we demonstrated the impact of climate change on a decadal mass balance evolution of small glaciers in the European Alps, as well as the influence of different ice bed geology on the subglacial drainage system and glacier motion. These studies provided important insights into the future of similar mountain glaciers globally. On a regional scale (i.e. the entire European Alps), we revealed a 200-year response of mountain glaciers to climate change through studying their environmental equilibrium line altitude, providing a good basis for better understanding of regional differences in glacier response to a changing climate and their effect on river runoff, ecosystems, tourism and hydro-electric power generation.
Tasks carried out during the lifetime of the CHANGE project and the main results are as follows:
- Using two different ground penetrating radar datasets, we assessed a 10-year-long evolution of ice thickness and volume of the Marmolada glacier in Italy and estimated its disappearance will likely happen by the year 2050. This work provides the first precise volume estimation and total water stored within the largest glacier in the Dolomites, as well as some new methodological conclusions about ground and airborne based GPR surveys.
- We introduced a new approach for distributed modelling of the environmental equilibrium line altitude over the entire European Alps. We used 200 years of climate records and forecasts to model environmental equilibrium line altitude from the year 1901 to the year 2100. Our projections suggest that the rise in environmental equilibrium line altitude will result in the unviability and possible subsequent disappearance of between 69% and 92% of all glacier in the Alps by the end of the 21st century.
- We collated repeated geodetic mass balance measurements gathered during the period 2006-2018 on the very small glaciers of the Italian Julian Alps and analysed synoptic meteorological conditions and correlation with climate indices. The increase in volume of ~10% was triggered by few winter seasons with extreme precipitation and a general increase in winter precipitation in the last 15 years. This study delivers new results on the impact of extreme events on short- to medium-term response of very small Alpine glaciers.
- We used a sophisticated numerical glacier model developed by one of the CHANGE partner organisations (Aarhus University) to simulate the seasonal evolution of the subglacial hydrological system and sliding velocity for a glacier under different rock permeabilities. The model was first run and tested over a theoretical glacier surface. After modifying the model, it was run over a real glacier environment using empirical data. Furthermore, we conducted three fieldwork campaigns at two selected study sites to perform detailed geomorphological analysis of glacier forefields using drone photogrammetry and provided indicative evidence for subglacial processes on different glacier bed lithologies and support for the modelling results. Our results demonstrate how groundwater flow can effectively remove the seasonal variation of glaciers flowing on carbonate rocks such as well-karstified limestone.

So far, we have published 2 peer-reviewed articles and 3 abstracts in conference proceedings. Ensuring effective knowledge transfer to the general public, we published multiple media outlets and created the project website, where all the project activities are explained and updated. The final outreach activity of the project will take place at the ‘Science in the City Festival of EuroScience Open Forum 2020’, which is one of the largest public engagement in science and technology events in Europe. This multilingual event made for the general public will consist of an exhibition of 3D topographic models of glaciers in the south-eastern European Alps, showing their drastic retreat due to ongoing climate change, and three public lectures, each of them focusing on different aspects of climate change.
The CHANGE project has expanded our knowledge of how the ice - bed geology influences the subglacial drainage system and therefore the basal sliding, which is essential for making projections of glacier motion and the contribution of glacier melt to stream runoff in the context of overall glacier response to climate change. This project has also generated novel results regarding the specific behaviour of very small glaciers under climate change and developed a new approach for distributed modelling of the environmental equilibrium line altitude.

The project’s impact on society is through the exhibition of two 3D topographic models of glaciers in the south-eastern European Alps, jointly organised by Julian Prealps Natural Park, Institute of Marine Sciences of the Italian National Research Council and Unione Meteorologica del Friuli Venezia Giulia, which will be moved to the museum of the Julian Prealps Natural Park in Italy after EuroScience Open Forum 2020 and become part of its permanent exhibition. Both the museum and general public will benefit from the new exhibition and the improvement of knowledge about the evolution of glaciers that are located in the protected UNESCO area of the Park. Although it will mainly be the general public who will benefit from the project results, the scientific results of the CHANGE project will hopefully be integrated into regional or local climate change policies. We will aim to exchange information with policy-makers on this subject in the planned future conferences.
3D view of Canin glaciers (SE Alps) at the end of the Little Ice Age (~1865) versus present days.