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Scientists Offer Simple Plan to Save Celebrated Glacier

As global temperatures rise, glaciers around the world are shrinking. But scientists in Switzerland have come up with a simple strategy that they hope will help save one of the biggest glaciers in the eastern Alps.

by Susmita Paruchuri /
Pontresina, Graubunden, Switzerland, EuropeMartin Moos / Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

As global temperatures rise, glaciers around the world are shrinking. But scientists in Switzerland have come up with a simple strategy that they hope will help save one of the biggest glaciers in the eastern Alps.

The researchers plan to cover a large swath of the Morteratsch glacier with artificial snow — the same stuff used by ski resorts. The idea is that the snow will help reflect sunlight and thus slow the pace of melting.

Over the past century, the glacier has retreated about 1.5 miles, and it continues to dwindle. That’s a big problem — and not just because the picturesque view long afforded to the people living in the nearby village of Pontresina has been lost. Meltwater from the glacier is an important source of drinking water for the region during the dry season. And the same is true for glaciers in many other areas.

Related: These Scientists Want to Put 10 Million Windmills in the Arctic

“When I was fishing, I realized that all the freshwater stored in the glaciers" would be gone by the time the next generation needed it, said Dr. Felix Keller, a glaciologist at Academia Engiadina in the Swiss town of Samedan and one of the scientists behind the plan, in an email to NBC News MACH.

Keller and his collaborators are adding the snow cover to the part of the Morteratsch glacier that’s melting during the summer — about 6-8 percent of the glacier’s surface. This will take thousands of snow machines working through the coming winter and spring.

Related: Seafloor Atlas May Yield Key Insights into Imperiled Glaciers

Piling the artificial snow 13 feet thick will protect the glacier for the entire summer, Keller told Popular Science. But even if the experiment is successful, it might not promise a long-term solution to the melting glacier problem.

“Projects like this are fighting an uphill battle that I think they will ultimately lose,” Dr. Twila Moon, a glacier expert at the University of Colorado, Boulder told NBC News MACH in an email. “The real key to reducing ice loss is reducing greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing temperature increases.”

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