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Stories from Gletsch

The Rhone Glacier
(by Erika Hiltbrunner)

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- Story 12


Gletsch lies at around 1760 m above sea level in front of the Rhone Glacier and the Rhone, also known here as the Rotten. The Rhone Glacier and its foreland form a small, curved valley that opens up in a south-westerly direction into the Goms. The Rhone Glacier is one of the best-studied glaciers and extends from 1800 m to over 3000 m in height (including the glacier foreland). Today's glacier tongue ends in a small lake at 2300 m, behind a steep step around 400 m above the “glacier floor”.


The Rhone Glacier has been in retreat for some time. During the last ice age (Würm Ice Age until around 10,000 BC), one arm of the glacier extended as far as the Swiss Plateau and the other ended east of Lyon.

During the so-called “Little Ice Age” (1600 to 1860), the Rhone glacier was also in motion. The oldest moraine system dates back to the 17th century. A very thick wall system characterizes the glacier status of 1856. Since this last advance, the Rhone glacier has melted continuously with only a few interruptions.


The position of the glacier's tongue has been measured annually since 1874. Measurements of the glacier's ice volume and snow cover were added in subsequent years. Based on the measurements and the models derived from them, old glacier levels can be depicted and the disappearance of the Rhone Glacier can be predicted. If the Rhone glacier continues to melt at the same rate as today, it will have disappeared completely by 2100.

The retreat of glaciers can be seen as an experiment in nature, although we humans are contributing greatly to the current glacier retreat due to global warming. There have been repeated glaciations (glacials) and warmer interglacial periods (interglacials) in the Earth's history, which have led to major shifts in the occurrence of species.

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