It’s no secret that the planet’s ice and snow cover is fast disappearing as a direct result of human-induced climate change. A warming world has led to unprecedented ice loss at the planet’s poles, the untimely deaths of glaciers, and a decline in snowfall. The white frosting atop Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak, is no exception, as evidenced by new images taken from above.
Mont Blanc straddles the French-Italian border and reaches a height of 4,810 meters (15,780 feet) at its summit. Just recently, Italian officials ordered road closures and evacuations as a glacier pinned to the side of a lower peak in the Mont Blanc massif risks collapse.
A century ago, in 1919, Swiss pilot and photographer Walter Mittelholzer flew over Mont Blanc, photographing the snowy, mountainous view below. Now, Dr Kieran Baxter and Dr Alice Watterson of the University of Dundee have followed in his flight path, taking to the skies to recreate the original images.
The 100-year difference is stark. Snow and ice cover have receded significantly over the past 10 decades, hitting home the fact that the impacts of the climate crisis are well and truly underway.
Snow and ice are key to mitigating global warming, as their reflective surfaces help to send radiation from the Sun's rays back into space, reducing the amount of heat left trapped in our atmosphere. Of course, less snow and ice cover means less radiation gets reflected, so more heat gets stuck, exacerbating global warming. Changes to snow and ice are also wreaking havoc on the wildlife that dwells in cooler climes, making it increasingly harder for creatures like reindeer and polar bears to access food and survive.
To recreate the original 1919 photographs, Baxter and Watterson used a technique called monoplotting, which involves mapping terrain from aerial images. They were able to use peaks and spires jutting out of the landscape as landmarks when determining the exact locations of the original photographs. To take the pictures, Baxter had to hang from the side of a helicopter at a height of 4,700 meters (15,420 feet), just below the mountain’s peak.
“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,” Baxter said in a statement. “It was both a breathtaking and heartbreaking experience, particularly knowing that the melt has accelerated massively in the last few decades.”
To curb the worrying impacts of global warming, governments need to implement strict policies to ensure greenhouse emissions are drastically reduced. A recent report found that just 20 fuel companies worldwide are responsible for over a third of global emissions. To achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, as per the Paris Climate Accord, these emissions must peak now and be pushed down in the coming years.
“Unless we drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, there will be little ice left to photograph in another hundred years,” Baxter said.