The memory of ice, to understand the future

According to data published by Copernicus, the European Union’s Earth observation programme dedicated to monitoring the planet and its environment, 2016 had been the hottest year on record since 1850. That record was broken in 2023. This was an unfortunately predictable fact for scientists who study the cryosphere, such as glaciologist Jacopo Gabrieli of the CNR [National Research Council]. We asked him to situate the meteorological indications of this first part of winter within the general climatic context, and explain the reasons and the importance of Ice Memory, the UNESCO-recognised international project led by CNR and Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University, in collaboration with the Ice Memory Foundation.

Carotaggi ad opera di Jacopo Gabrieli

Ph. Ice Memory Foundation

What kind of winter are we going through in the Dolomites?

“Precipitation data for this first month and a half of meteorological winter (which begins on 01 December), tell us that the accumulated amount of precipitation is slightly below average, but the real problem is the lack of snowfall; we are at last year’s levels, in other words, 40 per cent less than the averages we were used to prior to that. Precipitation was in fact accompanied by a high zero-degree isotherm. Looking at the trend, we can say that, according to a study published in 2020, the snow line in the Alps is rising by five metres every year, which means 200 metres in 40 years. The University of Padua has studied the growth rings of juniper plants – some living, some fossilised – to reconstruct the duration of snow on the ground over the last six hundred years. If we look at the data for the last century, it turns out that the duration of snow on the ground at an elevation of 2000 metres has decreased by more than a month.”

Combining these two facts allows us to clearly see which climatic trend the meteorological data of a year like 2023 fit into; according to the Copernicus programme study, 2023 was the warmest year since 1850, for the entire planet. And what about the mountains?

“Unfortunately, we knew as early as November that 2023 would be the hottest year – and that says a lot.  Globally, the anomaly was 0.60°C compared to the average for the thirty-year period from 1991 to 2020, but compared to the pre-industrial era, the figure comes in at a 1.48°C deviation, awfully close to the 1.50°C limit, which we intended to avoid reaching. In December 2023, the temperature anomaly over the Dolomites was the 3.2°C (nearly 5°C in the second half), compared with the period between 1991 and 2020. Colleagues at Meteoswiss have studied the elevation of the zero-degree isotherm over the past decades and realised another disturbing fact: in summer (July and August), the average elevation of the zero-degree isotherm is 300 metres higher than it had been during the pre-industrial period, and, in winter, it is as much as 500-600 metres.

We now come to the condition of glaciers. The Lagazuoi EXPO Dolomiti offers an exhibition entitled, “Goodnight Glaciers” dedicated to Ice Memory, created in collaboration with Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University Foundation and the CNR Polar Science Institute. Why is studying the information stored in ice relevant in terms of adapting to the climate crisis? 

“The Ice Memory project starts from two assumptions. The first is that glaciers are extraordinary environmental archives; within the layers of polar and alpine ice, we find invaluable information about climate, the environment of the past and the impact of human activities over the centuries. The second assumption is that their sudden melting is depriving us of, among other things, this very memory; it is like a fire destroying a library. We collect ice cores during our missions. Some are analysed immediately, while others are stored in Antarctica’s natural freezer.

The team she belongs to carried out a mission to the Svalbard Islands and one to Mt. Rose in 2023. The data need to be processed, but is there any empirical evidence that has struck you?

“On Svalbard, daytime temperatures during the mission were around -25°C, a seemingly comforting figure even though they rose dramatically shortly thereafter. But the surprising thing is that, at a depth of thirty metres, we found something unexpected, namely liquid water. It sounds impossible but it is not. That water had been stored in the deep layers and came from the massive melting of the surface layers, which occurred during the summertime. Plunging your hands into it was like plunging them into climate change – it is an image that perfectly explains the difference between meteorology and climatology. On Monte Rosa, we took samples from the Colle del Lys glacier, noting how in just a few years the temperature of the ice has now risen to nearly zero from -8°C to -10°C.”

And then we come to the Dolomites, where the remaining glacial bodies are at lower altitudes, and we can confirm again (and all the more) that their fate is now sealed, regardless of whether the goals of the Paris Agreement on limiting global warming are met…

“Yes, the fate of small glacial bodies is sealed. Going to Marmolada is like going to the bedside of a family member you love with all your heart, but who is now fading away. This, however, should not cause us to throw our hands up in despair; on the contrary, we must act more forcefully and think about the future, looking to 2100 and so not so much for ourselves as for our children and grandchildren. The title of the exhibition, “Goodnight Glaciers”, is provocative, but after the nighttime there can be an awakening, a ray of light and of hope – if we are able to bring about real change.”