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Old photos show the dramatic Swiss glacier retreat

Thursday, November 28th 2019, 5:49 pm - Over 500 Swiss glaciers have melted and the government says 90 per cent of the remaining 1,500 will disappear by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced.

THE FURKA PASS, Switzerland (Reuters) - On the hairpin bend of a Swiss mountain pass, a Victorian-era hotel built for tourists to admire the Rhone Glacier has been abandoned now that the ice has retreated nearly 2 km (1.2 miles) uphill.

Where mighty glaciers once spilled into Swiss valleys like frozen rivers of ice, a residue of gray scree and boulders remains, spliced through with raging streams.

A Reuters montage of images - showing photos of modern-day mountain landscapes next to archive shots of the same scenes decades earlier - reveals the dramatic change.

More than 500 Swiss glaciers have already vanished, and the government says 90 per cent of the remaining 1,500 will go by the end of the century if nothing is done to cut emissions.

2019-11-25T091758Z 1 LYNXMPEFAO0SA RTROPTP 4 CLIMATE-CHANGE-SWISS A handout picture of the Trient Glacier taken in 1891 and released by ETH Library Zurich, is seen displayed at the same location on August 26, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse and Glaziologische Kommission der Akademie der Naturwissenschaften Schweiz/ETH Library Zurich/Handout via REUTERS

Their retreat is expected to have a major impact on water levels - possibly raising them initially as the ice melts but depleting them long term. Officials fear the changes could trigger rockfalls and other hazards and affect the economy.

The Belvedere Hotel, built in the 1880s during a surge in Alpine tourists, was an early victim of the decline. Once the scene of wild parties, it features in a James Bond car chase in "Goldfinger".

Visitors can still walk into a cave carved into the glacier. But the ice above is now draped with huge white sheets to reflect the sun's heat. Despite such efforts, melt waters have formed a green lake.

Down the valley, a mid 19th century photograph shows the glacier's bulging snout more than 100 meters thick. Now, animals graze and a river meanders on the same spot.

reuters glacier A combination picture shows the Eiger, Guggi and Giesen Glaciers photographed near the Jungfrau between 1890 and 1900 (top) in Wengen, Switzerland and on August 27, 2019 (bottom). Library of Congress/Handout via REUTERS (top) and REUTERS/Denis Balibouse (bottom)

In another archive photograph taken in the late 19th century in front of the Aletsch glacier - the largest in the Alps - a man sits on a boulder in front of a huge ice channel that merges with the main ice stream below. Today, they no longer join.

Landlocked Switzerland is warming at twice the global rate and over the last year its glaciers have lost 2 per cent of volume, said Mathias Huss, who heads Switzerland's glacier monitoring institute GLAMOS which has data stretching back 150 years.

2019-11-25T091758Z 1 LYNXMPEFAO0SO RTROPTP 4 CLIMATE-CHANGE-SWISS A handout picture of the Aletsch Glacier in Fieschertal, Switzerland taken between 1860 and 1890 and released by Library of Congress, is displayed at the same location on September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse and Library of Congress/Handout via REUTERS

"We have never seen such a fast rate of glacial decline since the measurements have started," he said.

Some hope that politics can make a difference, especially after the Greens surged in an October election. The "Glacier Initiative" calling for more climate measures collected more than the 100,000 signatures required to trigger a referendum and will be sent to Bern this week.

But the glaciers will keep shrinking, scientists say. "The Alps will still be beautiful in my opinion, but they will be different," Huss said.

(By Denis Balibouse. Writing and additional reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

WATCH BELOW: CLIMATE CHANGE ACTIVISTS HOLD FUNERAL FOR "DEAD" GLACIER IN SWITZERLAND

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