The Aletsch Glacier on the Move
19 September 2022
The Aletsch Glacier and the three peaks Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, les Bernoises, are the focal point of the UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch‘. The English physicist, mathematician and glaciologist John Tyndall (1820-1893) wrote as early as 1860:
“The Aletsch glacier is the most impressive glacier of the Alps. We stood above it while the surrounding mountains generously fed the gigantic ice stream“.
The Aletsch Glacier
The Konkordiaplatz on this glacier owes its name to another Englishman, J. F. Hardy. He compared the intersection of several glaciers to the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The ice thickness here was still 900 metres around 1937, 800 metres today.
These and hundreds of other glaciers have shaped the landscape in large parts of Switzerland for hundreds of thousands of years. Even the mighty Aletsch Glacier, however, has its beginnings and periods of decrease and increase in thickness and length. It still amounts to about 22 kilometres, with a current reduction of about 50-70 metres yearly.
Millions of years ago, Switzerland was still largely underwater in a subtropical climate. Then, in a long process, it got colder and colder. The peak was around 24 000 years ago during the last Ice Age.
The end: July 2022
The Aletsch-, Fiescher- and Rhone glaciers reached as far as Lyon in the south and Solothurn in the north with a thickness of up to 1 700 to 500 metres! The average temperature was 14 degrees lower than today.
Modern research has been able to map the historical course of glaciers up to 24 000 years ago with reasonable accuracy. The first scientific investigations date back to 1841. That year, Alfred Escher von der Linth (1807-1872) published a report on melting the Aletsch Glacier.
This process is accelerating, reaching more than 50-70 metres annually. Since 1860, the glacier has shrunk by about 4 kilometres. The melting of glaciers is, therefore, not a new phenomenon. Numerous lakes are the result of this process, from the Blausee (canton of Bern) and Märjelensee (canton of Valais) to the lakes of Neuchâtel, Morat (Murten) or Bienne (Biel).
The Blausee, Kandertal
The significant melting began around 12 000 years ago. In fifty years, the temperature rose by no less than 7 degrees! However, it was a process with cold and warm periods. Between 1300 and 1850, for example, there was a minor ice age during which the Aletsch Glacier reached its maximum size. This period’s paintings, prints, documents and literature bear witness to the cold.
Abraham Beerstraten (1643-1666), Littte Ice Age, 1660. Musée d d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève.
Between 800 and 1300, it was considerably warmer, and the Aletsch Glacier had approximately reached its present size.
The Fieschen Glacier
The Fieschen Glacier is the little brother of the Aletsch Glacier. The Finsteraarhorn is the 4000+ centre of this giant of almost 15 kilometres. In the seventeenth century, this glacier threatened the hamlets of Brucheren and Unnerbärg. The people asked for help from above and the Pope. An annual procession, many vows (among others, no dancing and no red shoes for women) and daily prayers. Since 1860, the glacier has been answering these prayers and retreats.
John Tyndall deserves special attention. He was not only a renowned glaciologist and climber of the Jungfrau, Weisshorn, Dufourspitze, Finsteraarhorn and Aletschhorn. He also loved Switzerland, Valais and Belalp in particular.
From 1861 until his death, he spent the summer months at Hotel Belalp, built in 1857. The Anglican chapel dates from 1884. Tyndall constructed an English country house, Alp Lüsgen, next to the hotel in 1877. The town of Naters granted him honorary citizenship in 1887. A monument at his country house commemorates this builder of the highest villa in Europe.
The English Heritage
It is not the only English heritage. At the foot of the Eggishorn, Alexander Wellig from the village of Fiesch started a simple inn with English financial support. By 1902 it was a complex with the Grand Hotel Jungfrau-Eggishorn (102 beds), two (Anglican) chapels, a post office, a tennis club and other facilities.
Das schreckliche Trümmergebilde, View from the Eggishorn.
“Das schreckliche Trümmergebilde“, at that time the most famous viewpoint in the Alps, was the great attraction and destination of many alpinists, with the Grand Hotel as their starting point. The hotel flourished until 1968. The construction of a Cabine connection from the valley meant the end of the Grand Hotel. It burned down in 1972.
Sir Ernest Cassel (1852-1921) built a 25-room mansion on the Riederfurka in 1902. The villa, located next to the 1882 Grand Hotel Riederfurka, is the Naturschutzzentrum Aletschwald today. From the 1920s until World War I, it was a ‘precursor’ of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was one of the many visitors from politics, economics, culture and finance.
The Aletsch Glacier is the centrepiece of a UNESCO World Heritage region. The glacier has a venerable age and a history of ups and downs: growth and decline. It is also one of the first scientifically researched glaciers and a cradle of and for British tourism from 1850 until the First World War.
It also shows that today’s glaciers, mountains, lakes, rivers, flora and fauna are not self-evident but the result of natural processes over many millions of years. Today, man or humanity is influencing nature faster and more than ever. Climate change, however, is not unique. Planet Earth will continue to turn for some time, as it has for four billion years.
It does not alter the fact that people (caring for nature starts with each individual) and humankind should respect the greatest of world heritage sites without UNESCO-label: the earth.
Source and further information Home – UNESCO World Heritage Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch (jungfraualetsch.ch)
The Matterhorn, view from the Aletsch glacier