Vanishing Glaciers of the Matterhorn

Michal Pyka: ‘We are living in a weird world. In the world whose climate is rapidly changing in reaction to our actions. It does not make any sense to desperately deny the facts as some scientific deniers or misinformed politicians are trying to do.’

Matterhorn’s Western glaciers

Immediately after I get out of the train in Zermatt, I take a look above – towards the mountains – at Klein Matterhorn and Breithorn. I clearly see a distressing picture of greyish shade of the remaining snow. Once upon a time, the Alpine glaciers shined like diamonds in the crown of Alpine peaks, glittering in the sunlight along the skyline of the Alps and they were mightily beautiful. So, unfortunately, their present appearance – just the few open glacier fields – does not blow the mind with its beauty like it did before. The snow is grey and one can see from a distance that it is wet, heavy and matt. Such greyish snow is characterised by lower albedo, and therefore it absorbs much more heat than fresh snow. This, in turn, causes even faster melting. In fact, the general tendency of the vanishing of  ice and snow cover becomes indubitable and the process of glaciers depletion is running fast, however unequally across the area.

Zermatt and surrounding peaks: September, 2000 (Left) and September, 2016 (Right)

We are constantly heating the planet and are intentionally running towards even bigger health, economic and political problems. Across the planet Earth, there are still some remaining spots in which the progress of the environmental damage is not so fast, however the number of such spots decreases, while there are still more and more places in which dramatic effects of global warming strike like an avalanche. Now, we encounter a situation in which the only mountain range in the Northern Hemisphere that does not lose its glacier is the Karakoram Range. This phenomenon is known as “The Karakoram Anomaly”. This means that a normal situation – i.e. non-negative snow/water balance – has become an “anomaly”. Really, it’s a weird world we live in… If so, the melting caused by the global warming has been considered normal. Who knows where this new “norm” will catapult us. There is no way to slow down the global warming, or to turn back time and nobody knows the upper limit of this process.

Matterhorn: September, 2000 (Left) and September, 2016 (Right)

It seems that showing an example of what is going on in the Alps can be quite informative.. This particular case refers to the mountain range between the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa which is the second highest summit in the Western Europe. High mountain glaciers are very badly impacted by the global warming. In the future – not very distant, indeed – their multiple functions – ranging from giving beauty to landscape up to their economic and vital strategic role, such as potable water resources – will gradually stop being fulfilled, and many unavoidable economic and perhaps political consequences will follow.

Author and Monte Rosa: September, 2000 (Left) and September, 2016 (Right)

According to the National Geographic, in the last 100 years, the Alps have lost one half of their glaciers, of which as much as 20% since 1980. The Swiss glaciers lost some 20% in area within the last 15 years. However, the issue comes down not only to the expanse but also the thickness of the ice/snow pack, which is also decreasing rapidly. The amount of ice deposit is being reduced, thus impacting the amount of fresh water deposits in the range. This problem is much sharper in South America and to a certain extent in some regions of Asia, but it is only a matter of time before it arrives to the Alps as well.

Four out of five recent years have been reported as the warmest years in the recorded history. Therefore, the glaciers vanish.

Gornerglacier: September, 2000 (Left) and September, 2016 (Right)

The Swiss nation invests a lot of money in tourism development, like ski infrastructure, but in the last few years, they have faced shortage of snow. On Christmas and the New Year’s night 2015/2016 for the first time ever, there was no snow in Zermatt at all. Fresh snowfall replenished this shortage soon, but after it melted in spring, another part of “permanent” snows also disappeared.

Run-off from the Matterhorn’s Western glaciers (Left). I was a bit confused to see plenty of snow-making aggregates waiting for the ski season in this particular place (Right)
Snowy massive of Monte Rosa and Lyskamm as seen from Hoernli Hut: September, 2000

In the Northern Hemisphere, September is the best month to make an overview of the glaciers. The old snow is already gone and fresh precipitation is yet to come. This is why the pictures illustrating this text have been taken is September, in the years 2000 and 2016, respectively. The changes can easily be seen. The conclusions are also clear.

Glaciers vanish and when we compare old photographs with the more recent ones, we can notice the effects of rapid climate change, of global warming and remodeling of the mountain landscape with all consequences resulting from of these phenomena.

Snowless massives of the two highest peaks entirely located in Switzerland, Dom (double peak) and Taeschhorn
Vanishing ice/snow cover on the ‘starting col’ at the Hoernligrat
Vanishing ice cover on the foot of ‘Mutt ridge, Western Matterhorn’: September, 2000 (Left) and September, 2016 (Right)
Matt from the North-West: 1. Tiefmattengletcher, 2 and 3. ‘icefall’, 4. Bottom caves undermining the glacier



Facilities of a small hydro-power plant supplied with water from a small glacier above (Left). Lake collecting run-off water from the West of Matt. The arrow points outflow of water from the power plant (Middle and Right)
End of the ablation zone, West of Matt (Left), Water leaving the glacier valley, West of Matt (Right)


The picture below I have found on the internet – it’s a shot from 1894, taken exactly from the same place I took one of my pictures of the Matt:

The Matterhorn in Switzerland is a horn carved away by glacial erosion. — Credit: Photograph by Harry Fielding Reid. 1894. Zmutt Glacier: From the Glacier Photograph Collection. Boulder, Colorado USA: National Snow and Ice Data Center. Digital media

Words and Photos: Michal Pyka

About the author: Michal Pyka is an independent researcher specializing on environmental impact assessment, sustainable development, climate change adaptation and many more. His work can be experienced on his blog:

4 thoughts on “Vanishing Glaciers of the Matterhorn

  • June 6, 2018 at 9:11 pm

    What an informative article. Thank you

    • June 7, 2018 at 10:16 pm

      Thank you for your complement. Please spread those words. That will be helpful.

      Thanks again.

  • June 7, 2018 at 10:14 pm

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