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Research in eternal ice: glaciers and polar ice sheets

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Alpine glaciers are a hallmark of our landscape and play an important role in hydroelectric power and the local drinking water supply. Like the polar regions, they are acutely affected by global warming. We study these regions in order to anticipate future developments.


Changing climatic conditions in the polar regions affect the global climate, because ocean currents, which regulate the climate, depend on the exchange of heat between the polar and tropical regions. The polar snowpacks also play a major role in the global climate, as they reflect around 90% of sunlight. By way of comparison, seawater only reflects around 30% back into space.

In order to record climatic changes in Greenland, the current Director of the WSL, Konrad Steffen, together with the support of NASA and the National Science Foundation in the USA, has established a network comprising 20 automatic weather stations there. The network has been in operation since 1990. Measurements show that over the last 25 years, temperatures in Greenland have risen by around 4°C – more than twice the increase seen in Switzerland.

We examined the Antarctic and Arctic snowpack during multiple expeditions to the southernmost continent and to Greenland. Understanding how snow turns into ice enables us to reconstruct climate history more reliably than before. Using automatic measuring stations, we record weather and wind data in East Antarctica. This allows us to determine how much snow has been deposited and in which locations. All of this data is fed into "Snowpack", our snowpack and radiation balance model, and improves existing climate models.

Swiss Polar Institute founded

In order to pool expertise in polar research, we founded the Swiss Polar Institute in 2016 together with four other institutions. The aim of the Institute is to promote research of the poles and extreme regions. The first scientific project was led by an international team of researchers on the research vessel Akademik Treshnikov around the Antarctic in order to gain a better understanding of the impacts of climate change on the Antarctic Ocean and the planet as a whole.

Alps soon to be free of ice

Like the ice masses at the poles, the Alpine glaciers are also acutely affected by climate change: researchers predict that they will have melted to a considerable extent by the end of the century. We study the impact that this will have on the local drinking water supply and the use of hydroelectric power. We also use computer models to simulate the danger of glacial outburst floods and ice avalanches.



Alpine glaciers

Knowing how glaciers evolve is crucial for hydropower operations, water availability, and assessments of natural hazards.

Polar snowpack

We study polar snow and how it "ages". These findings help us reconstruct past climates and improve our predictions.


Further information