Tag Archives: alps

Snowfall in the Alps is full of plastics particles

New research from the Swiss Federal Laboratories For Materials Science And Technology (EMPA), Utrecht University, and the Austrian Central Institute for Meteorology and Geophysics showcase the scale and huge range of pollution carried through the atmosphere.

The research site at Sonnblick. Image credits ZAMG / Christian Schober via Flickr.

The findings suggest that around 3,000 tons of nanoplastic particles are deposited in Switzerland every year, including the most remote Alpine regions. Most are produced in cities around the country, but others are particles from the ocean that get introduced into the atmosphere by waves. Some of these travel as far as 2000 kilometers through the air before settling, the team explains, originating from the Atlantic.

Such results build on a previous body of research showing that plastic pollution has become ubiquitous on Earth, with nano- and microplastics, in particular, being pervasive on the planet.

Plastic snow

Although we’re confident that the Earth has a plastic problem, judging by the overall data we have so far, the details of how nanoplastics travel through the air are still poorly understood. The current study gives us the most accurate record of plastic pollution in the air to date, according to the authors.

For the study, the researchers developed a novel chemical method that uses a mass spectrometer to measure the plastic contamination levels of different samples. These samples were obtained from a small area on the Hoher Sonnenblick mountain in the Hohe Tauern National Park, Austria, at an altitude of around 3100 meters from sea level. This area was selected as an observatory of the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics and has been in operation here since 1886.

The samples were collected on a daily basis, in all types of weather, at 8 AM. They consisted of samples of the top layer of snow, which were harvested and processed taking extreme care not to contaminate them with nanoplastics from the air or the researchers’ clothes. According to their measurements, about 43 trillion miniature plastic particles land in Switzerland every year — equivalent to around 3,000 tons.

In the lab, the team measured nanoplastic content in each sample and then analyzed these particles to try and determine their origin. Wind and weather data from all over Europe were also used in order to help determine the particles’ origins. Most of the particles were likely produced and released into the atmosphere in dense urban areas. Roughly one-third of the particles found in the samples came from within 200 kilometers. However, around 10% of the total (judging from their level of degradation and other characteristics) were blown to the mountain from over 2000 kilometers away, from the Atlantic; these particles were likely formed in the ocean from larger debris and introduced into the atmosphere by the spray of waves.

Plastic nanoparticles are produced by weathering and mechanical abrasion from larger pieces of plastic. These are light enough to be comparable to a gas in behavior. Their effect on human health is not yet known, but we do know that they end up deep into our lungs, where they could enter our bloodstream. What they do there, however, is still a mystery.

The current study doesn’t help us understand their effects any better, but it does put the scale of nanoplastic pollution into perspective. These estimates are very high compared to other studies, and more research is needed to verify them — but for now, they paint a very concerning picture.

The paper “Nanoplastics transport to the remote, high-altitude Alps” has been published in the journal Environmental Pollution.

Meet the cyanometer: an 18th-century device solely built to measure the blueness of the sky

The cyanomètre. Credit: Bibliothèque de Genève, Switzerland.

When 18th-century Swiss scientist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure was in his twenties, he had one epic goal in mind: to climb the summit of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. However, ever the scientific mind, he didn’t want to complete his quest without objectively recording the color of the sky from the highest peak in Europe. So in 1789, Saussure invented a tool for measuring blueness — a circle of blue hues called the cyanomètre.

The scientific method hinges on observation and measurement. In ancient times, the human body was at the forefront of measurement — the width of a foot and the distance of a step were all accepted measurements. Nowadays, we have sophisticated instruments that objectively measure anything from temperature to time. For Saussure, measuring the sky’s blueness was also important.

When Saussure was a youth, the summit of Mont Blanc was still unclaimed. The Swiss researcher, who became a professor at the Academy of Geneva at just 22 years old, dreamed of being among the first to climb its tops. Unfortunately, his efforts always came up short. So the young scientist, who was particularly fascinated with the geology and botany of the Alps, publicly offered a reward to anyone who could prove they reached the top of the treacherous summit.

On August 8, 1786, twenty-seven years after Saussure issued his challenge, the grand prize was claimed by two mountaineers, Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard.  “I had reached the goal where no one had as yet been,” Balmat said at the time, “not even the eagle nor the chamois.”

Portrait of Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, in the Library at Geneva. Credit: Bibliothèque de Genève.

Later, Saussure and other mountain climbers noticed that the sky became increasingly blue higher up in altitude. As he prepared for new attempts to climb Mont Blanc, the Swiss scientist decided he wanted to measure the color of the sky.

Over the course of several years, Saussure refined his idea into a tool called the cyanomètre, a circular array of 53 shaded sections printed on a piece of paper. That’s it.

An early cyanometer made by Saussure from 1790. Credit: Biodiversity Library.

It may sound like a silly invention, but just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it’s useless. On the contrary, when Saussure finally claimed his own ascent of Mont Blanc in 1787, just one year after Balmat and Paccard, he measured that the sky corresponded to 39th-degree blue.

Later, famed geographer Alexander von Humboldt took the cyanometer to expeditions across the Atlantic, where he measured the blueness of the sky above summits in the Caribbean, the Canary Islands, and all over South America. The darkest sky Humboldt recorded was over Mount Chimborazo, the highest peak in Ecuador, at 46th degree of blue.

Saussure’s theory was that the sky changed color with altitude due to the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. In the 1860s, John Tyndall showed that light scattering was the reason why the sky is blue in the day but red at sunset.

Saussure invented other instruments for measuring meteorological phenomena, including the diaphanometer for judging the clarity of the atmosphere, the anemometer for measuring wind speed and direction, and the mountain eudiometer, a device that measures the change in the volume of a gas mixture.

Even mountain glaciers are now contaminated with microplastic

After finding microplastics in the deep oceans, tap water, and even inside humans, researchers have now discovered another ‘pristine’ area polluted by plastic: remote mountain glaciers.

Microplastics have been found in areas once thought pristine such as glaciers. Image credits: NASA / James Yungel.

It’s not the first time plastic pollution has been found in ice. Previously, researchers have found plastic in remote regions such as the Arctic — now, the same researchers have now discovered microplastics in the Forni Glaciers in the Swiss Alps.

Roberto Sergio Azzoni at the University of Milan and colleagues analyzed sediment samples from the glaciers, finding around 75 particles of microplastic per kilogram of sediment. If this is a representative sample, that would add up to 162 million plastic particles across the entire Forni glacier.

Microplastics are essentially any plastic piece under the size of 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) — whether they were produced this or degraded into smaller pieces. They generally enter natural ecosystems from a variety of sources such as cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes. In this case, the plastic parts have a “local” origin: they most likely come from hi-tech hiking gear.

It’s a stern reminder that anywhere humans go, plastic pollution follows close by.

A 2014 study estimated that there are between 15 and 51 trillion individual pieces of microplastic in the world’s oceans. A more recent study from 2017 found that most of the world’s tap water is also contaminated with microplastics, as water filtration systems are unable to remove these small specs. Creatures of all shapes and sizes from marine ecosystems have also been found with substantial quantities of ingested plastic; often times, this turns out to be fatal. It’s estimated that it takes in excess of 1,000 years for microplastics to fully degrade in the environment.

Policy attempts at reducing microplastics have been shy. In 2018, the Japanese government unanimously voted a law to reduce microplastic pollution, but the law doesn’t specify any penalties for companies that don’t comply. In the US, states like Illinois have banned cosmetics containing microplastics, and at the national level, a 2015 law signed by President Barack Obama banned “rinse-off” cosmetic products that contain microplastics, but the law does not apply to other products such as household cleaners. The European Chemical Agency has also recommended measures to reduce microplastic pollution, but no concrete measures have been taken yet.

The latest findings have been presented at the European Geosciences Union conference in Vienna.


The Alps will lose all their glaciers by 2100 if we don’t do something about it

We could be looking at ice-free Alps by 2100. And yes, it’s because of climate change.


Matterhorn, the ‘Peak of the Meadows’, a mountain in the Alpine range straddling the border between Switzerland and Italy.
Image via Pixabay.

New research found that the European Alps could lose all their glacier ice by the end of the century. Under a limited warming scenario, the mountain range would lose about two-thirds of their current ice volume. However, under a strong, unmitigated warming scenario, virtually all Alpine glaciers will be gone by 2100.

Alps, stirred, no ice

“Glaciers in the European Alps and their recent evolution are some of the clearest indicators of the ongoing changes in climate,” says senior co-author Daniel Farinotti from ETH Zurich.

“The future of these glaciers in indeed at risk, but there is still a possibility to limit their future losses.”

The study provides the most up-to-date estimates of how Alpine glaciers (of which there are around 4000) will evolve in the coming decades, the team writes. According to the results, large changes in glacier ice volume in this area will occur in the next few decades. From 2017 to 2050, for example, the team expects roughly 50% of their volume to melt away — regardless of any slashing of emissions on our part (due to climate inertia). After 2050, however, “the future evolution of glaciers will strongly depend on how the climate will evolve,” says study-leader Harry Zekollari.

“In case of a more limited warming, a far more substantial part of the glaciers could be saved,” Zekollari, a researcher at ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, now at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, adds.

This melting will have a pronounced impact on local alpine ecosystems, of which the glaciers play an important part. Local landscape and economy are also likely to see perturbations, the team adds. The glaciers supply local ecosystems with fresh water, and keep local agriculture and hydroelectricity production going in warm or dry periods. They also attract a lot of tourists.

Zekollari and his team used computer models that combined ice-flow and ice-melt processes with observational data to see how Alpine glaciers will fare in the future. They used 2017, when Alpine glaciers had a total volume of about 100 cubic kilometers, as the ‘present day’ reference.

Under a limited warming scenario (RCP2.6), where greenhouse gas emissions would peak in the next few years and then decline sharply — leading to warming below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels by 2100 — Alpine glaciers would lose around 37 cubic kilometers of ice by the end of the century.

Under a high-emissions scenario (RCP8.5), where emissions would continue to rise rapidly over the next few decades, the glaciers would be virtually gone by 2100.

“In this pessimistic case, the Alps will be mostly ice free by 2100, with only isolated ice patches remaining at high elevation, representing 5% or less of the present-day ice volume,” says Matthias Huss, a researcher at ETH Zurich and co-author of the study.

It pays to keep in mind that our current emissions are just above the quantities considered for this scenario.

All in all, no matter what we do, the Alps would lose around 50% of their glacier volume by 2050. This happens because all the greenhouse gases we’ve already emitted will linger in the atmosphere for a while — until they break down, mean temperature increase is largely independent of new emissions. However, what happens after 2050 is very much in our hands. Another reason for this decline in glacier volume by 2050, the team adds, is that the Alpine glaciers currently have ‘too much’ ice. Their volume, especially at lower elevations, still reflects the colder climate of the past, as glaciers are slow to respond to changing climate conditions.

Even if we manage to stop the climate from warming any further, keeping it at the level of the past 10 years, glaciers would still lose about 40% of their present-day volume by 2050 because of this “glacier response time,” says Zekollari.

The paper ” Modelling the future evolution of glaciers in the European Alps under the EURO-CORDEX RCM ensemble” has been published in the journal The Cryosphere.

Alpine river bank. Photo: Flickr

Just 1 in 10 Alpine Rivers still flow Today

The Alps may seem like a paradise, but the environmental situation is extremely dire. Just one in ten rivers are healthy enough to maintain water supply and to cope with climate impacts according to a report by WWF. The study is the first ever to take a look at all the Alpine rivers.

The choked rivers of the Alps

Alpine river bank. Photo: Flickr

Alpine river bank. Photo: Flickr

Naturally, there are over 2600 km of rivers in the Alps; but out of these, only 340 kilometers remain ecologically intact, while the rest of 2300 are heavily modified or dried out. The environmental consequences are huge, as rivers are biodiversity hotspots and play a key role in maintaining the ecological services of an area.

“Healthy rivers, streams, wetlands and floodplains provide a suite of ecosystem services including fresh water and flood protection,” said Christoph Litschauer, Head of WWF’s European Alpine Freshwater Program. “These systems are essential for human livelihood. Beyond basic services, we also have to look at healthy natural rivers as one of our best insurance policies against climate change.”

The problem is not just related to the Alps – 4 million people from eight countries rely on the Alpine rivers as water sources, either for drinking or for agriculture, fisheries, energy, jobs and recreation. The study, which was conducted by Vienna’s University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences also found that just 11 percent of the rivers are on their original valleys, the rest being redirected or used in hydroelectrical dams.

“Many planned hydro-dams are situated in protected areas like the Soca in Slovenia or on pristine rivers like the Isel in Austria. These counteract current protection efforts,” continued Litschauer. “Rivers are more than mere energy suppliers; they need to be seen for the complete natural services they provide.”

But it’s not just local issues affecting the rivers – climate change is making its presence felt as well. The temperature in the Alps has risen by 2°C within the last 200 years, far above the average global temperature increase of .85°C.

To make things even worse, following the catastrophic floods that hit Europe in the past few years, WWF highlights the need to strengthen the resilience of water ecosystems. They explain that local populations are unable to provide the necessary protection, and call on governments to protect and restore these rivers.

“Extreme weather events are increasingly likely and we must protect and strengthen the capacity of our ‘green infrastructure’ including living rivers and wetlands. The environment is changing and we must respond,” said Litschauer.

The WWF study also highlighted a no-go are for hydro power plants and highlights river stretches for future restoration projects. A study like this one is long overdue and shows the incredible amount of damage suffered by Alpine ecosystems. Even though the Alps still have unspoiled areas, the extent of the damage is surprisingly high, the study concludes.