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Alpine Experiment: German Professor Says Wind Might Save Glaciers

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A German geographer says wind screens could keep chilly breezes on top of Europe's glaciers -- and perhaps save them from melting. Glacier experts say he's wasting his time. An experiment in Switzerland could provide some answers.

The glaciers of the world are melting fast, and the ice-rivers of Europe's Alps are no exception. Some researchers think that within 30 years Europe's glaciers will all but vanish. With the world's temperature rising, there seem to be few ways to save the glaciers. Even if the world's carbon emissions were dramatically reduced in the near future, the fate of the glaciers seems sealed.

So far, only one method has proven effective in slowing glacial melt: massive, light colored covers that keep the glaciers cool by reflecting sunlight. But they're usually only enough to preserve a few ski slopes. Glaciers in the Alps can can cover dozens of kilometers.

Geographer Hans-Joachim Fuchs in the western German city Mainz has another idea. He wants to harness the power of cold mountain winds -- so-called kabatic winds, or streams of cold, dense air that flow downhill -- with windscreens. The screens would keep the cool air on top of the glaciers, perhaps preserving them for a little while longer.

Fuchs has been proposing this idea for years, and this week he's putting it to the test. On Monday, Fuchs and 27 students headed to the Rhone glacier in Switzerland to install a windscreen measuring 15 meters long (50 feet) and 3 meters high at an elevation of 2,300 meters (7,545 feet) on the leading edge of the glacier. He'll be measuring the effectiveness of the screen to see if it's a viable solution.

It's no secret that the Mainz professor is obsessed with climate change. He's a frequent presence on TV shows, in newspapers and on the lecture circuit, and has turned himself into a go-to source for journalists who want quotes on climate change and glacier research.

That may be part of the reason the media-savvy Fuchs has had lots of success selling his latest project. "Wind Protection Keeps Glaciers Frosty," a feature on Bavarian radio blared, praising his "unusual method, unique in the world." The Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper's article on Fuchs was headlined "Wind Cools Glaciers," while the Mainz Bote wrote: "Windscreen Could Save Glaciers." Fuchs was invited onto German national radio for an interview.

But among his colleagues, Fuchs is hardly recognized as a glacier expert. In fact, his doctor thesis was on "Tea Environments and Yield in Sri Lanka." He's also written on precipitation variations in the monsoon climate of northeastern India. But glaciology doesn't seem to be one of Fuchs' professional specialties.

It's not surprising, then, that glacier experts are dismissive of Fuchs' windscreen idea. "Something like that would certainly not be very effective," says Martin Funk, a glaciologist at the Swiss Technical Institute (ETH) in Zurich. If you're looking for a local cooling effect, a windscreen "is crazy," Funk says. "Covers are much more effective."

The majority of the glacial melt, it turns out, isn't actually tied to the wind temperature, but rather to the sun's rays and the atmosphere. "That's the main factor," Funk says. "That's why covers are so effective. They reduce melting by about 80 percent."

But that's just a local fix. Covering up an entire glacier is hardly practical. Fuchs cites the ice cover that has been dragged over the Zugspitze glacier for the last 15 years – an effort he calls "crazy" -- as an example. "Covers aren't a solution, in my opinion. They're just there for ski tourists."

But glaciologists wonder if Fuchs' fix will be any better. "Even if you built a wind screen big enough, it's doubtful whether you could meaningfully alter the wind patterns," says ETH Zurich glaciologist Andreas Bauder. To measurably affect the development of a glacier, Bauder says, takes years.

Fuchs is undeterred. He describes his project as a "little test." "If all goes well, then we'll go ahead with something much larger," he says. A few skeptics are just typical German naysayers -- and not enough to discourage him.

"One German university is trying out something daring," Fuchs says. "We've got lots of sponsors who see that something's going on here, and they support us."

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