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A hike through ice caves under Austria’s melting glaciers shows ‘decays’ from climate change

Ice caves are growing under Austria’s glaciers.

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

The caverns that form a blue underground world are a testament to how the glaciers are melting from climate change faster and more dramatically than expected, and scientists exploring them want to understand why.

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Glaciologists Andrea Fischer and Martin Stocker-Waldhuber, explore a natural glacier cavity of the Jamtalferner glacier near Galtuer, Austria.

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

It’s too late to rescue these glaciers in the eastern Alps, says glaciologist Andrea Fischer, who took Reuters photographer Lisi Niesner under the Jamtalferner glacier at the border last week between Austria and Switzerland to illustrate the toll in pictures. In the next 10 years, Fischer expects, it will be gone.

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

“But what is very important: Sometimes one has to look at what cannot be rescued in order to rescue the others,” she told The Washington Post on Wednesday. “This is the one located at the lowest elevation, and this will be the first to completely disappear.”

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Fischer and Stocker-Waldhuber hike toward the Jamtalferner glacier.

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Fischer and Stocker-Waldhuber inspect the entrance of a cavity in Jamtalferner glacier.

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

When warmer air and meltwater come into contact with ice, cavities form in the glacier, hollowing it out from within until it collapses.

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

The best way to limit the damage is for the world to take steps to bring down emissions and the rate of global warming, according to Fischer, a mountain researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Her warning echoes a bleak forecast from the United Nations climate agency, which said this week that the last three mountain glaciers in eastern Africa were shrinking so fast they could vanish within two decades.

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Research also showed earlier this year that ice was melting faster worldwide, with scientists trying to grasp how high sea levels could rise.

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

In her 20 years of studying icy masses, Fischer usually saw smaller tunnels near glacial rivers. But she was able to spend almost an entire day hiking beneath the ice of the Alpine glacier. “It was never this big,” she said. “Now, you can see how a glacier decays.”

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Scientists like Fischer have documented the effects of climate change on this glacier, the Jamtalferner in Austria, by taking measurements year after year. Some believe the lessons learned could help other regions that rely on glaciers — such as in parts of the Himalayas where meltwater is vital for harvesting crops — curb their collapse.

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

There were many more questions about the role of global warming when Fischer first started studying glaciers. “Now it’s quite clear that something is going on,” she said. “And we know the reason for it.”

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Fischer inspects a piece of ice inside a natural glacier cavity in Jamtalferner glacier.

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Lisi Niesner/Reuters

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Credits

Photo editing by Morgan Coates. Project editing by Sara Sorcher and Reem Akkad.