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Glacier collapse in the Dolomites: Statement by WSL

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Matthias Huss, glaciologist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL and ETH Zurich, provides answers to the main questions about the tragic glacier collapse in the Dolomites.


The following answers were provided by Matthias Huss, head of the Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network Switzerland (GLAMOS), which is run jointly by WSL, ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and the University of Fribourg.


Could such a collapse also happen in Switzerland?

Yes, these events can never be ruled out. However, it is very difficult to predict the place and time unless there are prior indications of possible instability.


Which environmental factors play a role?

At the moment, it is still difficult to tell with certainty. Investigations by those responsible on site will have to clarify the exact causes of the collapse. However, the exceptional situation this year with very little snow in winter and early, heavy ice melt has certainly played a role.

Drought and heat are certainly not the only and decisive factors, but they support a potentially dangerous situation that was already present and had probably already developed over a longer period of time. That being said, high temperatures and thus an increased input of meltwater can ultimately be a trigger.


Are there any warning signs that mountain goers could look out for?

It is probably very difficult for the layperson to assess a situation. Even with a lot of experience, it is often almost impossible to estimate with a single observation whether a collapse is imminent or not. Once a critical situation has been identified, only constant monitoring can provide information about the timing of the event.


Will glacier hikes become more and more dangerous in the future?

I don't think one can generalise. Hazards in the high mountains, such as ice avalanches or rockfalls, have always been and will remain to a certain extent unpredictable in the future. However, the current climate change is leading to new situations that have been difficult to foresee so far and that have to be constantly reassessed.


Will such events occur more frequently with climate change?

This cannot be stated as a general rule. However, climate change favours the development of new dangerous situations. The big challenge is to recognise these in time to build up early warning systems.


Can the glaciers still be saved?

With consistent and global climate protection, some of the glaciers can actually still be saved. We are talking about around one third in the Alps if the Paris Climate Agreement is implemented. That's not much, but it would still cushion the worst effects.


Contact persons for media

  • Dr. Matthias Huss, Head of the Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network Glacier Monitoring Switzerland (GLAMOS), which is carried out jointly by WSL, ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and the University of Fribourg.
  • Dr. Daniel Farinotti, Assistant Professor of Glaciology at the Research Institute for Hydraulic Engineering, Hydrology and Glaciology (VAW), ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape (WSL), Birmensdorf, Switzerland