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How The Rhone Glacier Has Retreated Since The 19thC

April 28, 2015

By Paul Homewood  



Rhone Glacier


A couple of weeks ago, we looked at how the Rhone Glacier had retreated since the mid 19thC. Photographic evidence suggested that most of the retreat had appeared to have occurred prior to 1950.

We can actually be more precise, as Barry Woods pointed out, because the Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network provides annual measurements of the length of the glacier, dating back to 1879.

This is the graph they provide, and clearly much of the retreat occurred before 1950.



Looking at the decadal figures shows just how stark the contrast really is.




The 1940’s stand out as the decade of major retreat. Apart from then, the rate of retreat seems to have been pretty steady, with no sign of acceleration.


It is also worth bearing in mind that, between 1856 and 1870, the glacier was said to have retreated by about half a mile. This would represent a rate of retreat about 60% greater than that during the 1940’s.



Back in 1856, Rhône Glacier almost reached Gletsch village down in the valley. View from the valley.




In 1870, Rhône Glacier had retreated about half a mile
and lost considerably in thickness, but still leaped down to the valley



Armando has come across this picture of the Rhone Glacier in 1909, along with an earlier engraving which bears resemblance to the 1856 photo. It comes from the book, “Comptes rendus of observation and reasoning”, published in 1917.




The commentary reflects just how surprising this large retreat was to the observers at the time.






The book also refers to the Lower Grindelwald Glacier: 




  1. Wille Börlin permalink
    April 29, 2015 10:43 am

    Recently i somewhere read about priests and clerics, and what have you, that in the medieval days cursed the “attacking” glaciers. Obvioulsy they saw the glaciers as the Devils work or Gods punishment. They could with their own eyes see how, year by year, fruitful land and houses where “glaced”.

    Unfortunately i have lost track of the material which is supposed to be in writing from the time in question.

    Does anybody know more about this an where i might find out more?

    Plaese let us know on this list.

  2. April 30, 2015 12:02 am

    Thanks, Paul.
    You have proven your case, the Rhone Glacier has been retreating since 1879.
    Thanks, Barry, Armando!
    What happened in 1942 to cause a length change of -135 m/year?
    And -80 m/year in 1945 and again in 1962?


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