Tarps on the glaciers, “a plastic shroud”

The glaciers are dying, and rather than conserving them, “the geotextile tarps used in an attempt to cover them risk becoming plastic shrouds, adding fuel to the fire that is killing them in the form of greenhouse gas emissions”. Jacopo Gabrieli is a researcher at the Institute of Polar Sciences of the Venice branch of the CNR (National Research Council). He has participated in major research projects from the Alps to Greenland and from Antarctica to Svalbard, and is one of 39 glaciologists and climatologists who have signed an open letter against the use of geotextile sheets to slow down the melting of glaciers. The following eight organisations and institutions are co-signatories: the Italian Glaciological Committee, the Secure Mountain Foundation, the Italian Climate Network, the Alto Adige Glaciological Service, the Lombardy Glaciological Service, the Tridentine Mountaineering Society, the Alpine-Adriatic Meteorological Society, and the Italian Meteorological Society.

A question of consistency

Why did you decide to take a stand? Don’t tarps help slow down the melting?

“We need to be clear; while tarps can help slow the melting of glaciers locally, and they seemed like a form of climate change adaptation for economic activities there in the past, the only real way to save glaciers is to stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” Gabrieli comments.

In fact, the open letter from the scientists lists the contradictions inherent in a practice that aims to protect these ecosystems: the impact of snowmobile fuel, the consequences of producing the plastics composing the tarpaulins themselves, the repercussions of releasing plastic fibres into the environment and the “suffocation” of plants and animals that are migrating to higher altitudes, precisely because of climate change. “An engineered glacier is an artificial accumulation of water in a solid state that is isolated, inaccessible, and impassable. Are these really the glaciers we want to save for future generations?” write the scientists.

Considering that this practice is not very widespread, what is your concern?

“The accompanying narrative: it should be clear that this is a way to preserve legitimate economic activities and instead, it is increasingly being presented as a sustainable intervention, a solution to the adverse effects of climate change. I think it’s one of the consequences of what I would call the business of sustainability.” In short, it’s an attempt at greenwashing that, as glaciologists and climatologists write, “risks creating confusion and compromising the environmental sensitivity that has been painstakingly cultivated in recent years”.

No short-cuts

According to the signatories of the letter, “pursuing impactful procedures to maintain economic activities that will become increasingly unsustainable due to climate change itself is the opposite of adaptation; it is obstinacy”. What are the alternatives then? “Glaciers can only be saved by stabilising the planet’s climate; there are no shortcuts”, reads the document. While failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will lead to the near-complete disappearance of Alpine glaciers by the end of the century, limiting temperature increases to less than 2°C would save 40% of the ice in the Alps today. “And that is not trivial!” the scientists conclude.

A peek at summer

Sparse precipitation in the winter certainly doesn’t help. Will glaciers be less protected this summer and start melting early?

“There has already been some exposed ice in Marmolada during the past few weeks (before the last snowfall)”, stresses Gabrieli.  “Glaciers feed off winter precipitation. The snow melts during the summer, and when there is no more snow, it’s the ice that melts. Clearly, if there is little snow, this process will begin in June and not, as usual, between August and September.”

What if there is copious snowfall in March and April?

“It wouldn’t count for much, because a single hot day in May can melt as much as 20 or 30 inches of snow. The temperature of winter snow is -10°, but spring snow is isothermal and does not have the buffering capacity of winter snow.”

Ph. Francesca Ferri e Elena Bertoni