Plan is Hatched to Slow Retreat of a Swiss Glacier Using Artificial Snow

A view of the Morteratsch glacier in Switzerland.

A view of the Morteratsch glacier in Switzerland. PATRICK NOUHAILLER, FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS

A town near one of Switzerland’s best-known glaciers, Morteratsch, is working with glaciologists to see if blowing artificial snow on the glacier in summer might slow its retreat.

Morteratsch, the third-largest glacier in the eastern Alps, has retreated by 1-½ miles since 1860 and is now receding at a rate of roughly 100 feet a year. Morteratsch is one of the most frequently visited glaciers in the Alps because its end-point is easily accessible from a nearby train station that connects to the neighboring town of Pontresina.

The town has approached glaciologist Johannes Oerlemans of Utrecht University in the Netherlands to see if blowing artificial snow on a portion of the 3.7-mile-long glacier each summer can help stem its retreat and even help it regrow. “The major effect of the snow is reflection of sunlight,” Oerlemans said, adding that “as long as there’s snow on top the ice beneath is unaffected.”

Oerlemans has concluded that blowing snow on a portion of Morteratsch could help it regrow by up to a half-mile in 20 years. He and his colleagues will conduct a small, snow-blowing experiment on another Swiss glacier this summer and, if it succeeds, will draw up a proposal for Pontresina and the Swiss government to give Morteratsch the artificial snow treatment. The cost would be substantial, Oerlemans said, as 4,000 snow machines would be required to make enough snow to reverse the glacier’s retreat.