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Impacts of climate change: Alpine glacier webinar for everyone

  • Eva Doll
  • April 19, 2021
Credits cover image: Bernd Ritschel

Ritschel on the fascination of glaciers and their demise

Bernd Ritschel is a passionate mountaineer and successful photographer. His special passion: Alpine glaciers. Ritschel reports on their unique beauty and their rapid melting in the Rab and Lowe Alpine webinar.


Bernd Ritschel has been travelling in the mountains for over 40 years. In the last four years alone, the outdoor photographer visited 42 glaciers in Europe. For his homage to the beauty of the white mountains - the the book "Alpine Glaciers. What worries him: their dramatic decline.

Bernd Ritschel also wants to show the alarming reality in the mountains with his pictures.
Image credit: Bernd Ritschel

To tell about his intense time in the mountains, the climate neutral company Equip with the brands Rab and Lowe Alpine invited Bernd Ritschel to the Facebook slide show: "Alpine Glacier" invited. Together, they want to raise awareness for the rapid shrinking of glaciers as a result of global warming - and encourage concrete action. ISPO.com listened to Ritschel's report:

Between fascination and frustration

When Ritschel reaches the Pasterze (Austria's largest glacier) on the Großglockner in 2017, the mood is apocalyptic - a cloudy, colorless day. Plus the shock: "The glacier had lost so much size since my last visit. It was completely crazy. In the past 30 years it had lost an estimated 150m of thickness and since the glacier's peak in 1850 it had now shrunk by half - to 15sqm. A depressing moment..."

The glacier, which was once about 200 meters thick, is "now only a thin lobe in the valley. Large parts of the glacier tongue are now glacial lake."
Image credit: Bernd Ritschel

The next day the weather changed: a sunny mountain day awaited the climber. The Grossglockner region regained its former beauty for Ritschel. "This trip was a constant up and down. Between frustration at what climate change is doing and fascination at what's still there or emerging." Like the glacial lake created by glacial melt.

Beautiful and sad at the same time: glacial lakes as a result of global warming.
Image credit: Bernd Ritschel

He had a similar experience on the Vernagt Glacier in the Ötztal Alps. Ritschel had pictures in his head from a visit 35 years ago. "When I was there again three years ago in late autumn, I was amazed at how much mass it had lost. An estimated 30 percent of volume and length was just gone."

However, the recession from the ice and the meltwater running off had also created a 300-meter-long ice tunnel at Vernagtferner, he said. Accessible via the glacier gate at the end of the glacier tongue. "The day in there was really crazy. It's breathtaking colors, shapes and textures that you never see anywhere else. I was completely in my element."

The ice cave of the Vernagtferner: "Diving in there was an incomparable experience of nature."
Image credit: Bernd Ritschel

Large masses of meltwater form gigantic glacier gates

The summer visit to the Gepatschferner glacier gate confirmed what Ritschel had already suspected in advance: "the gate was significantly larger, as more meltwater flows out in July/August. On peak days in midsummer at temperatures around 35°C, water masses of more than 10 cubic meters flow out there - per second."

Another thing he noticed was that the glacier tongue looked grey and dirty. There was just more and more debris, rubble, and rock flowing off with it. "It was different in my memories, too". Nevertheless, he was totally focused on filming and photographing and it was "just fun to dive so intensively into this mountain landscape."

Ritschel estimated the huge glacier gate of the Fornigletscher to be 30-40 m high and 60 m wide.
Image credit: Bernd Ritschel

Ritschel saw the largest glacier gate on the four-year trip at Fornigletscher, in the Ortler Group, Italy. "This gate was gigantic. We stood there in amazement...a plane would have gone in there."

Ritschel estimated the huge glacier gate of the Fornigletscher to be 30-40 m high and 60 m wide.
Image credit: Bernd Ritschel

The outdoor photographer had also planned a tour to the Upper Isch Sea in the Bernese Alps (Switzerland). The so-called Lower Ice Sea below, several kilometres long, used to exist - it has already "completely melted away". Only a little below the Schreckhornhütte (2500m), Ritschel's night quarters, the ice began.

Zero degree limit: at well over 4000 meters

"Around 24.00h I'm still out for a few pictures in front of the hut: It had +15 degrees at 2,500m altitude. There you realize that the 0 degree limit in such a night is at 4500-5000 meters. That is of course deadly for the glaciers."

And something else is causing glaciers to shrink: The glaciers ' nourishing areas, the firn zones, are getting smaller and smaller. If no new ice comes, they will inevitably melt.

Melting as a danger for climbers

"The changes in the Alps are massive for climbers." Says Ritschel. The Rab and Lowe Alpine athlete told of a group of soldiers on the Taschachferner (Ötztal Alps) who approached him across the glacier. What they didn't notice: The ice bridge they were walking on had only a thickness of dangerously about 20 cm, he said. "For me as a photographer, of course, the thin ice with the special incidence of light is just as pure beauty." He adds.

Glacier retreat has consequences for mountain hikers: These here are moving on dangerously thin ice.
Image credit: Bernd Ritschel

Ritschel also had to adapt to the conditions on every glacier tour. He is glad that good friends accompanied him - and grateful for the incredible time they spent together in the mountains.

"Everything is getting crumblier"

Another example: "Because the nights no longer cool down, crossing the crevasses over the so-called ridges becomes much more dangerous. The thawing permafrost does the rest, because it also melts the connection between rock, scree and sand. More and more frequently, this leads to major landslides, when tons of rock slide down into the valley. "It can also happen that where there used to be ice and you could easily march up with crampons, now a steep scree slope becomes a problem. Hut keepers try to mitigate that with ropes. So that the climbers can still get up to them." The experienced mountaineer continues. A mountain hut owner in the Mont Blanc region told him: "The season has become so short. In July/August there is often nothing left. Climbers can't come up there anymore - it's clearly too warm and there's far too much rockfall."

Höllental glacier: If you want to get to the Höllental glacier, you climb up via the Höllentalklamm gorge.
Image credit: Bernd Ritschel

"The scale of melting is enormous, especially on the small glaciers"

The Höllental glacier in the Wetterstein mountains is the last real German Alpine glacier. Otherwise, there is only "non-nourished death ice". Glaciologists say it still has a length of 750 meters. As it recedes, more and more junk is aperturing out. "That's another problem," Ritschel says. He and his companion wondered what the thickness of the Ferner was. To measure, they descended into the crevasses. "The fact is, this Höllentalferner is just 10-20 meters thick in wide areas. A glacier can melt up to 2 meters thick per summer. A few hot years and there's not much left of the glacier in the lower, thinner areas."

Passion for the mountains also obliges us to protect nature

Ritschel's closing appeal "Enjoy every day on the glaciers - because they are fleeting." Sarah Kampf of Equip adds, "Outdoor sports are not only a passion, but also an obligation: to protect and respect nature. We all need to act together and immediately - and we need everyone."

What contribution do you make to the protection of nature?