21 Climate Physics Master students visit Switzerland

Ice & Climate excursion 2021

The group at Diavolezza (Photo credit: our mountain guide. August 26, 2021)
The group at Diavolezza. (Photo credit: our mountain guide. August 26, 2021.)

Long, long ago, the Ice & Climate excursion was an annual highlight for Climate Physics master and IMAU PhD students. This tradition slowly faded into a memory until this summer, when four enthusiastic students, Daan Stroeken, Marleen van Soest, Raeven van den Acker and Jan Boersma, took up the challenge to organize the 2021 Ice & Climate excursion. No easy task under ever changing COVID-19 travel restrictions, but towards the end of June the travel schedule was final.

So, in late August 2021 students together with a PhD student (Ann Sofie Zinck), postdoc (Bas Altena) and staff member (Willem Jan van de Berg) travelled to Switzerland for a firsthand experience of glaciers, mountains and their climate. However much one can learn about glaciers in a classroom, nothing tops visiting them in real life. Besides that, it was great fun to travel with fellow students after all those hours spent in lockdown during the past academic year.

We first visited the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) in Davos. SLF performs world leading research into the structure and material properties of snow and the mechanics, risk assessment and damage limitation of avalanches. Spending a few minutes in a −25◦C cold room proved a popular pastime. Here, dr. Martin Schneebeli explained how, after long and hard work, SLF managed to build a device that can create most types of real-world snow crystals to study their structure and microphysics.

At the next stop in Pontresina, dr. Felix Keller from ETH Zürich introduced us to the MortAlive project, which aims to limit the rapid retreat of Morteratsch Glacier by returning the glacier’s own meltwater to its surface as artificial snow. To that end, novel zero-emission snow nozzles were designed that travel along cables spanning the width of the glacier. Felix also introduced Sonam Wangchuk's ice stupa development, artificial ice reservoirs that originate in the Himalayas to mitigate droughts resulting from reduced glacier melt.

The highlight of the excursion was the hike down Pers and Morteratsch glaciers. The vastness of the glaciers and their spectacular recent retreat left nobody untouched. We felt the katabatic glacier wind, observed how stones on the glacier surface can either enhance or slow down melting, felt the brittle ice surface with numerous meltwater holes and stared down moulins where meltwater disappears into an icy void. Our mountain guide showed us the small creatures that live in the meltwater below stones at the glacier surface, of which nobody knows how they migrate over the glacier and survive the winter. During one of the breaks, Felix surprised us with a fiddle concert, his music evoking simultaneous emotions of hope and sorrow for the future of these beautiful glaciers.
On our last day in Switzerland, a few students woke up early to climb to Paradis Hütte in the moonlight and see the sunrise on Piz Bernina and Morteratsch glacier. Later that morning, Hans Oerlemans guided the group around Muottas Muragl, an lovely alp with a large rock glacier. Do you still remember the day that you learned about these extremely slow moving “piles of stones”? Well, I do.

Needless to say, the excursion to Switzerland was a resounding success!

Kal Bohn and Willem Jan van den Berg

Morteratsch Glacier, facing up-slope. (Photo credit: Kal Bohn-Fischer. August 26, 2021)
Morteratsch Glacier, facing up-slope. (Photo credit: Kal Bohn-Fischer. August 26, 2021.)
Sunrise over Morteratsch glacier. (Photo by Jonna van Mourik. August 27, 2021.)
Sunrise over Morteratsch glacier. (Photo by Jonna van Mourik. August 27, 2021.)