Alpine ice caves on the verge of shrinking, study shows climate change is causing it

According to studies, the Alpine ice caves in Austria are shrinking due to climate change. Only a few of the thousands of known ice caves in the world have received in-depth research, with Austria having one of the highest densities.

Eight ice caves with descending morphology in Styria, Tyrol, Upper Austria and Carinthia have now been comprehensively examined over the past few years by a team of researchers and scientists from the Universities of Belfast and Innsbruck using comparative research methodology.

(Photo: Tigerente/Wikimedia Commons)

According to Tanguy Racine, individual ice caves have already been the subject of some solid studies. The research, which focused on ice development in many of the caves, all of which are in similar places – similar height as well as steep geometry to vertical cliffs – was the first time a comparative analysis had been done.

Racine is from the Quaternary Research Group in the Department of Geology. He covered the topic in great detail in his thesis. The ice formations of these caves are the result of solid precipitation, especially snow that slips into the cave during the winter and freezes there when the temperature drops.

Charlotte Houniat of the Department of Geology and Tangy Racine collect ice samples from Tyrolean Guffert Eisschacht for laboratory analysis.

Ice Cave Development

The team used a radiocarbon method to measure the age of the caves’ ice layers, which were often several meters thick. Racine explains the procedure by saying that the research team focused on the smallest inclusions of wood samples in the ice layers so far. It is possible to determine the exact age of these pieces of wood that fell into the ice caves from the outside.

The comprehensive database, which includes 107 dates from ice wood samples, provides an accurate picture of ice accumulation and deposition in ice caves over a time period of up to 2,000 years.

Using this strategy, the team was able to substantiate the theory that historically recorded glacier advances, such as those that occurred during the “Little Ice Age,” are also reflected in glacial mass growth in ice caves and occur at the same time.

The geologist goes on to say that similar ups and downs in ice evolution can be seen in glaciers and ice caves over the past two millennia. The amount of snow in the winter and how hot the weather is in the summer are critical factors for both. The results also show that a significant portion of Austria’s underground ice dates back to the “Little Ice Age”, which occurred between the 15th and 19th centuries.

Read also: Avalanche of Alpine glaciers kills six in Italy; Snowpack and Icy Rock criticize hikers

shrinking ice caves

Racine notes that glaciers are not the only ones that have recently shown an above-average negative mass balance. Balance ice caves Negative too. The effects of higher temperatures as well as reduced precipitation had a major impact on the ice caves.

The study It shows the rate of ice retreat that was never recorded during the 2,000-year measurement period. Several cases come to mind: for example, observations at Guffert Eisschacht in Steinberg am Rofan revealed a decrease in ice surface of about three meters between 2019 and 2021, and Eisgruben Eishöhle in Sarstein, Upper Austria lost 10 meters of ice thickness in the forty years past. Kraterschacht Upper Austria in the Sengsen Mountains lost 20 meters of ice at that time.

Similar to glaciers, this development can be attributed to human-caused climate change. Racine explains that it must be assumed, particularly for small and medium-sized ice caves, that they will significantly lose ice mass or even become completely ice-free in the coming years to decades. The clock is ticking loudly.

It must be assumed, particularly for small and medium-sized ice caves, that they will significantly lose more ice mass or result in them becoming completely ice-free in the coming years to decades. The clock is ticking loudly.

To preserve climate data important to science in the long term, Innsbruck researchers will carefully remove ice cores from alpine ice caves in the coming years and store them cold, science daily reports.

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