A massive glacier near Mont Blanc is on the verge of collapse, leaving local people in danger from vast chunks of falling ice.

The Planpincieux glacier sits in Europe’s western Alps, straddling the borders of Italy, France and Switzerland. In recent years, warming temperatures have melted the vast icy structure, increasing its sliding speed, which now covers more than 50 cm each day.

While this might not seem much, in glacial terms it is extreme.

Planpincieux is a hanging glacier, perched on a steep slope, which is sliding towards the edge of a ravine. NASA’s Earth Observatory reports that a 250,000 cubic metre chunk of ice is poised to break away, without warning, and fall into the valley below.

Climate change is impacting other Alpine glaciers, big and small, and depleting snowfall which the economies of many local communities rely on.

Unseasonably hot

Large temperature fluctuations occur naturally in the region, but in places like Switzerland the seasons are getting hotter.

Since the turn of the century, greenhouse gases have dramatically increased average temperatures in Switzerland.
The steady rise in temperatures in Switzerland
Image: Meteoswiss

Switzerland’s climate has long been prone to fluctuations, which were mainly due to natural causes. But greenhouse gas emissions have dramatically increased average temperatures, particularly over the past few decades.

This has caused the loss of many of ice masses, including the Pizol glacier in the north-east of the country, for which protesters recently held a funeral. Dressed in black, a solemn parade made its way up the 2,700 metre mountain to bid farewell to the glacier – one of the most studied in the Alps.

Up to 90% of Pizol’s glacial mass has disappeared since 2006, leaving an area equivalent to less than four soccer pitches.

"Since 1850, we estimate that more than 500 Swiss glaciers have completely disappeared, including 50 that were named," Matthias Huss, a glaciologist at the university ETH Zurich, told AFP.

On thin ice

Melting glaciers increase the risk of avalanches, landslides, rockfalls and floods, adding to the dangers facing local people.

As well as physical hazards, there are also economic threats associated with warming temperatures, which in Alpine regions can impact tourism, agriculture, forestry and water management.

Glaciers often provide much-needed water for hydroelectric plants. And the beauty of these icy masses attracts the tourists which many local communities rely on, while reduced snowfall could shorten Alpine ski seasons, hurting local economies.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

NASA statistics show the past four years are among the warmest ever recorded. As glacial ice melts it contributes to sea-level rises. During the 20th century, global sea levels rose by around 15 cm, but they are now rising at twice that rate, an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report shows.

And this trend looks set to accelerate. The IPCC predicts smaller glaciers in Europe, Africa and Asia are set to lose around four-fifths of their ice mass by 2100.

More than a third of all remaining glaciers, many of which have been around for several thousand years, could disappear by the end of the century, according to the WWF.