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The ice-cold birth of river Rhone

The first sight of the glacier causes an undeniable feeling of excitement. Slowly we realize that here, at an altitude of almost 2.275 meter, we see the origin of a river that will grow into an enormous water mass that after 815 km eventually will end up in the Mediterranean Sea. 

The spectacle here in the Swiss Alps is going on for millions of years and is strengthened by the presence of the ice mass, acting seemingly motionless. But in fact the glacier is moving constantly.

Year after year an ice cave is carved under the glacier. Usually in the middle of May a helicopter with a group of experts lands in the area which is still covered with snow. 

For one month they are working on the excavation of the ice tunnel and move about 350.000 kilos of ice. A meticulously job because the tunnel should remain accessible for tourists during the whole summer. 

During the annual construction of the ice cave a structure is built of poles and cloths. Shortly before the beginning of the winter the workers pull down the construction completely. 

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In one of the passages of the ice tunnel wine is resting in barrels.

According to the traditional method this glacier wine must mature on a high altitude.  

The constant low temperature limits the oxidation during the maturation process. 

Glacier wine is dry and has a slightly bitter taste. Some people compare it with the taste of sherry.

Behind the hairpin curve near Hotel Belvédère is the beginning of the foothpath to the Rhone Glacier. From the location where this picture was taken there used to be a direct view on the glacier for many years. Nowadays only eroded rocks are to be seen because of the pulling back of the ice mass.

Faster and faster melting glaciers

All over the world glaciers are melting faster and faster because of the global warming. The ice masses pull back further and further into the high mountains. 

The reporting team of Travelling along Rivers compared the situation of the Rhone Glacier in a time difference of three years. Since the first visit in the autumn of 2010 the glacier lost five metres. The photo left below shows the situation in 2010, on the photo was taken at the same position three years later.

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Reseachers of the 'Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale' of Lausanne constructed a 'melting schedule' of the development of the Rhone Glacier since 1874. Using advanced mathematical technology they made predictions about the movements of the glacier up to 2100. The schedule above shows how the ice mass will be virtually gone by that year. 

Experts expect serious consequences for the water management. The Swiss Alps contain almost sixty billion of cubic meters of ice. In dry summers they provide drinking water, in wet winters they save water in the form of ice. 

The researchers also conclude that the fast melting process will have far-reaching consequences in the long run for rivers, because they will become smaller in size.


The pictures above show the withdrawal of the Pedersen Glacier in Alaska. The photo on the left was made in the summer of 1917, the right one is showing the situation in the summer of 2005. (foto: NASA/JP)

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