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Melting glaciers: between causes and future. The case of Marmolada

The importance of glaciers is determined by the many functions they perform. They are an important water resource and preserve and represent the memory of the climate, as they store within them valuable data about its historical evolution. Glaciers are particularly sensitive to climate change and the transformations to which they are subjected, which rapidly change their shape and size. Therefore, they are indicators of the state of climate change itself (Santin, I. et al., 2019).

The melting of glaciers is linked to climate change. Global temperature rise causes ice masses to melt, with various consequences for the surrounding ecosystem. These include the creation and inflow of large amounts of water into the seas, causing the marine and terrestrial ecosystem to rise and become unbalanced, and disrupting the lives of the people who depend on this balance. For example, several cities such as Venice or Amsterdam would risk disappearing under water, and with them many islands and coastal areas that are sources of biodiversity.

Furthermore, melting glaciers have negative consequences for the fauna of the surrounding ecosystem. Many animal species are doomed to extinction due to their inability to adapt to their new environment. Finally, the impact on the tourism industry must be mentioned. High temperatures and less abundant snowfall make it necessary to modify and adapt pre-existing routes used for summer hiking, with consequent changes to the relative levels of difficulty (Diolaiuti, G., & Smiraglia, C., 2010).



The state of glaciers: some considerations

The melting of glaciers occurs due to natural and anthropogenic causes. Anthropogenic causes, such as increasing greenhouse gas emissions, have led to an acceleration of the ice melting process compared to its natural course. Intense anthropogenic activity has favoured a massive concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This presence has contributed to secondary phenomena, such as the deposition of pollutant dust, which has caused a reduction in reflectivity and an increase in the level of retained heat.

In addition, the presence of less abundant snowfall is a further risk factor. The layer of snow covering glacier surfaces provides protection from external heat sources, reducing the absorption and subsequent dissolution of the ice layer (Vaccaro, D., Ferrando, I., & Federici, B., 2021).

The smaller the ice sheet, the greater the risk of melting during the summer period.


The Marmolada case

The Alpine arc is particularly affected by the phenomenon of melting glaciers in conjunction with global warming and rising temperatures. There has been a progressive increase in temperatures during the summer period since 1970. Smaller glaciers (whose surface area is less than 1 ㎢) are the most exposed to the risk of disappearance, as they experience more recession than larger glaciers due to their smaller surface area. They make up about 80% of the Alpine surface area and make an important contribution in terms of water supply (Diolaiuti, G., & Smiraglia, C., 2010).

The Marmolada massif is located in the Dolomites, on the border between Belluno and Trento. The massif is home to peaks of about 3000 metres and the Marmolada glacier extends into the northern part of the Dolomites.

In the time between 2004 and 2014, the glacier's surface was reduced by about 30 per cent. It is irregular and jagged, and alternates isolated portions of ice with rocky areas. Over time, there has been a process of retrogression and thinning of the glacier's volume, making it more vulnerable to phenomena such as ice sheet calving.

The combination of the factors mentioned in the preceding paragraphs was the cause of the calving of an ice plate on 3 July 2022. Among them are the presence of a high temperature, which exceeded the seasonal average by two degrees, and a particularly dry winter. These factors favoured a high melting temperature and consequent presence of water in a liquid state in the fractures between the glacier and the underlying rock layer. It is possible that the water in one of the fractures acted as a lever, causing one of the plates to detach.


Conclusion

In light of the aforementioned factors, it is clear that the role of glaciers in the ecosystem The fate of the Marmolada glacier appears to be sealed: there is an irreversible process that could lead to its relegation to a glacier state in the shaded areas by 2035 (Diolaiuti, G., & Smiraglia, C., 2010). It is therefore necessary for the attention of public opinion and policy makers to focus on the protection of glaciers through the implementation of an ecological transition pathway aimed at reducing the anthropogenic impact on the environment.






Sources

Santin, I.; Colucci, R.R.; Žebre, M.; Pavan, M.; Cagnati, A.; Forte, E. (2019). Recent evolution of Marmolada glacier (Dolomites, Italy) by means of ground and airborne GPR surveys. Remote Sensing of Environment, 235(), 111442–. doi:10.1016/j.rse.2019.111442


Diolaiuti, G., & Smiraglia, C. (2010).Changing glaciers in a changing climate: how vanishing geomorphosites have been driving deep changes in mountain landscapes and environments.


Vaccaro, D., Ferrando, I., & Federici, B. (2021). Melting of Italian glaciers: analysis of the phenomenon in GIS environment. Geoingegneria Ambientale e Mineraria, 58(1), 10-18.

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