Aerial photograph reveals 100 years of ice loss on Mont Blanc

Aerial photograph reveals 100 years of ‘heartbreaking’ ice loss on Mont Blanc after scientists recreate an image taken by a Swiss pilot in 1919

  • Coordinates of the original photo were worked out and scientists flew there
  • They took the same photograph and noticed the white ice covered less ground
  • One warned that climate change means a photo in 2119 could show no ice at all 

Aerial photographs have revealed how much ice Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, has lost in the past 100 years.

A photograph taken in 1919 has been exactly recreated this year showing the top of the mountain and highlighting the toll climate change has taken on it.

Patches of white ice have visibly shrunk and now appear as barren land.

A scientist using multiple GPS devices to find the exact spot and hanging out of a helicopter with his camera took the shot in August and revealed it this week.

And the team behind the image said that, unless action is taken to slow down climate change, 2119’s photograph might show almost no ice at all.


Researchers from the University of Dundee took a photo from a helicopter (right) after working out the exact location of one taken by Swiss pilot Walter Mittelholzer in 1919 (left) and noticed how much glacier ice had disappeared

Dr Kieran Baxter, from the University of Dundee, said: ‘The scale of the ice loss was immediately evident as we reached altitude but it was only by comparing the images side-by-side that the last 100 years of change were made visible.

‘It was both a breathtaking and heartbreaking experience, particularly knowing that the melt has accelerated massively in the last few decades.’

His photograph recreates – from the exact same coordinates – one taken by Swizz pilot and photographer Walter Mittelholzer from a biplane a century ago.

Although that one was in black and white, the difference is plain to see.

Dr Baxter and his colleague Dr Alice Watterson used computer maps and the layouts of the mountains to work out where Mittelholzer took his photograph from.

Then they took a helicopter to revisit the site and recreate the photo themselves.

The resulting photograph shows glaciers named Argentiere, Mont Blanc Bossons and Mer de Glace.

And the change in the shading on their surfaces shows how much ice has been lost since the end of the First World War.

Dr Baxter added: ‘Mittelholzer played a key role in popularising commercial air travel in Switzerland, an industry which ironically came to contribute to the warming of the climate and the detriment of the alpine landscapes that the pioneering pilot knew and loved.

‘When working at these heights there is currently no viable emission-free alternative so airtime is kept as brief as possible and careful planning goes into getting the most out of a photography flight like this one.

‘Luckily, clear weather allowed these repeat aerial photographs to be taken on the centenary of the originals.

‘Unless we drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, there will be little ice left to photograph in another hundred years.’

PART OF MONT BLANC GLACIER IS AT RISK OF SLIDING OFF

A piece of glacier near Mont Blanc is at risk of sliding off the mountain and into the valley below, scientists warned last month.

Researchers say 250,000 cubic metres of ice on the Planpincieux glacier, situated in the Italian Alps, is at risk of falling into the Ferret valley after they measured it travelling at more than 16ins (40cm) per day. 

Stefano Miserocchi, mayor of nearby town of Courmayeur, ordered the evacuation of several mountain huts and closed two roads on Tuesday as a precaution.

But he insisted there was no danger to residential areas or tourist facilities. 

Researchers say a section of the Planpincieux glacier, in the Italian Alps is at risk of sliding off the mountain and into the Ferret valley below, sparking evacuations

Val Ferret contains some cross-country skiing paths, but the nearest downhill ski runs are located in the neighbouring valleys – Val Vény and Plan Chécrouit.

Mr Miserocchi told Italian media: ‘These phenomena once again show how the mountain is going through a period of major change due to climate factors and, therefore, it is particularly vulnerable.’  

The glacier is located on the Grande Jorasses peak of the Mont Blanc massif in the Alps that straddles the borders of Italy, France and Switzerland.

Researchers told the BBC that it is impossible to predict exactly when or if the glacier might collapse, but cautioned that there is no warning system in place.

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