Having grown up in the valley of Kashmir, I am always drawn to snow-clad mountains. So when a friend from Srinagar visited London last summer, I jumped at the chance of travelling with him to Switzerland for a few days to walk in the mountains and see the glacier on Mt Titlis. I think of Switzerland as an idyll, the country where Vladimir Nabokov lived in a hotel for the last 16 years of his life and chased butterflies in its Alpine meadows.
Switzerland currently has 1,400 glaciers, according to the scientists at ETH, a research university in Zurich. About 1,000 glaciers have disappeared in the last 30 – 40 years. It is a staggering number for such a small country. Switzerland’s glaciers have lost more than half of their volume in less than 100 years and it is likely they will disappear completely before the end of this century. There is a consensus among scientists that climate change is caused by human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels.
Glaciers play an essential role in sustaining human life on Earth. They are not only the main source of fresh water but also reflect sunlight back into space and hence keep our planet cool. Glaciers can be divided into three groups: the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland; mountain glaciers, also known as alpine, although I find it difficult to call a river of ice on the high Himalayas an alpine glacier; and the third is Piedmont, named after a region in Italy that refers to glaciers on level ground at the foot of a glaciated area.
The receding of glaciers in the Alps and other mountains was an early indicator of climate change. There are scores of mountain ranges in the world but the largest number of mountain glaciers happens to be in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan alone has more than 7,000 glaciers in its northern region. It is the most glaciated place on the planet outside the polar regions. The country bore a heavy brunt of climate change in 2022 when large swathes of its land were inundated by a cataclysmic flood.
When I travelled to Zurich in June last year, the town appeared greener and cleaner than ever, and walking down a high street through perfumed linden trees was a delightful experience. On a bright summer’s day you find swarms of Zurichers swimming in the Limmat River and Lake Zurich. However, you can choose this Alpine country these days as a case study for climate change. It has warmed up 2.5 C in the last decade, which is double the global average. Switzerland is part of a land-mass in the central northern latitudes and that is why it is warming more than the global mean, with the increased heat heading towards the Pole.
The permafrost which acts like glue to keep parts of the mountains together is thawing. This is a major concern, not only because it releases a tremendous amount of CO2 into the atmosphere but also because it causes the mountains to crumble. Switzerland had built bunkers inside its mountains during the Cold War where its population could hide in the event of a nuclear war, and the Swiss mountains now appear to be fragile. For instance,
a mudslide killed eight hikers in 2017 before swamping the village of Bondo.
At the top of Mt Titlis, I felt most uneasy to see a white polyester fleece blanket covering a part of the glacier to stop it from melting. I entered a cave at the mountaintop and learned that the ice inside it is up to five millennia old. I was deeply saddened also to learn that it is likely to disappear completely.
The faster melting of glaciers can create more lakes in the mountain valleys but it is a mixed blessing. Switzerland already has 1,500 lakes. Climate scientists agree that the disastrous effects of climate change outweigh its benefits. Change can often be delightful to see in nature, as witness the changing of the seasons, but climate change is already bringing untold misery to humankind. A decade ago, the debate was about how to avert the calamity of climate change. But now that it’s here the discourse has turned to how to adapt to it.
The summer of 2023 has been disconcerting for so many people across the globe, to say the least. It was sunny in London in June but July was a washout. However, a heatwave scorched much of southern Europe. A friend from Canada emailed me to ask if it wasn’t unbearably hot in London but some Londoners switched on the heating in their offices and homes in the middle of last summer.
It was heartbreaking to see Rhodes, Yellowknife and Maui ravaged by wildfires. When my 10-year-old watched news reports about forest fires in Canada, he was quite bemused as he had associated the country mostly with severe winters. Climate change knows no borders and the actions of people in one part of our world can impact the lives of people dwelling in a different part. Global climate change is resulting in more extreme weather in Switzerland and other countries around the world. The floods in poor countries during the last few years have caused much devastation. People in developing countries are consuming only a fraction of energy per capita compared to people in the developed world. Kashmiri people, for instance, are worried that the Jhelum could break its banks again and inundate cities and towns in our Valley as it did in 2014.
The Covid-19 pandemic was surely a window of opportunity for us to rethink our dependence on fossil fuels. But the economy took priority again over the environment once the immediate health and welfare crisis was over. A reduction in the carbon footprint is as much an individual responsibility as it is of businesses and governments. I would like to believe that all is not yet lost and we can still mend our ways before it is too late. But it will certainly take urgent action to save our planet.