Want to See Climate Change? Come With Me to the Mont Blanc Glacier

When I visited in 1988 it took just three steps to reach the ice. Today it takes 370.

Source: Getty Images

On a mild September day 27 years ago, my family and I took a red cog train and a brand-new cable car from the ski town of Chamonix in the French Alps up to the Mer de Glace, or “Sea of Ice.”

It’s the most famous part of the Mont Blanc glacier, rising to 1,913 meters (6,276 feet). It’s also the most visible symbol in France of climate change, which officials from almost 200 nations will discuss in Paris in December.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visited on Friday to make that point, but he didn’t talk about what it was like in 1988. When we went there, it took just three stair-steps to get down to the ice and to a huge cave carved inside the glacier.

Here we are just above that place, the glacier stretching behind us. I’m in the red sweater.

When I went back earlier this month, the scenery had changed dramatically. The Mer de Glace has melted and shrunk so fast that visitors now have to go down 370 steep steps to get there. Living on a top-floor apartment with no elevator, I’m used to vertical walking. But this was a literally breath-taking experience: aching knees going down and 10 minutes of major cardio going up.

The blue ice is lost under a thick layer of dust and rubble. It’s a sad sight, and a striking example of the reality of climate change and global warming.

You can see me here, sitting where I sat with my brothers and friends in 1988.

Glaciers aren’t static, they are like rivers of ice. They flow, they grow, they shrink. They even can flood valleys, depending on the temperatures and snow each season. They vary a lot from one year to another. But the Mer de Glace has never shrunk as rapidly as it has in the last 15 years. There can only be one cause, says Luc Moreau, a glaciologist at Grenoble University, who has studied the Mer de Glace for many years.

“This time it’s not just nature commanding the glacier’s fate,” he says. “It’s human activity. Humans have modified the composition of the atmosphere, and that has an impact on global warming.”

The Mer de Glace has retreated by two kilometers from its 1850 position, when it was so big that it reached Chamonix, down in the valley. About every year in the past three decades its has lost a net three to five meters at its snout, the word used to describe the lower end of the glacier. 

The snout may go back another 1.2 kilometers by 2040, according to Christian Vincent, a glacier scientist at Grenoble University, and the thickness of the ice there will shrink by dozens of meters. In the worst-case scenario it could even retreat 1.4 kilometers, he says.

Mont Blanc Glacier Feels the Cold from Climate Change

Global warming has had other visible and irreversible impacts in the Alps and other mountains. As summer temperatures added 1.5 degrees Celsius in the past 30 years, the heat attacked the permafrost, the layer of soil and stones that remains below freezing point throughout the year. The ice lodged in the cracks of the mountains destabilized huge slabs as it melted, some of them falling off and covering the glaciers below. One set of slabs and rubble was as big as five Arcs de Triomphe, said geologist Ludovic Ravanel.

Globally, the 10 warmest years in the past 134 all have occurred since 2000, except for 1998, and 2014 was the warmest year on record, according to data from NASA. In Chamonix, scientists fear July 2015 was the worst of all summers: temperatures peaked at the highest since measurements were first taken in 1934.

“The question is, what can be done to reverse the trend, or at least slow it?” asks Benjamin Claret, the 20-year-old manager of the Mer de Glace ice cave, a family business since his grandfather founded it after World War II. “Visitors are now coming here to witness climate change. It’s sad, but it’s necessary.”

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visits the "Mer de Glace", a glacier located on the northern slopes of the Mont Blanc massif. 
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visits the "Mer de Glace", a glacier located on the northern slopes of the Mont Blanc massif. 
Photographer: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

“The Mer de Glace shows the effects of global warming,” Valls said as he stood above the rocky traces of the glacier’s past. “It's not an intellectual or philosophical subject.” 

President Francois Hollande said Sept. 10 it may already be too late to reach an agreement on emissions targets at the United Nations global climate at the end of the year.

The Compagnie du Mont Blanc SA, which operates the century-old cable car train, access to the glacier and a historic hotel overlooking the sharp mountains, plans to move the access to the Mer de Glace 700 meters farther along the glacier line, to about where the snout may be in 2030. 

“We will move higher up and drill the ice cave again.” Claret said. But I fear it’s just the problem we’re moving higher up, because it will start all over again: three steps, then 50, then where? Climate change spoiled it all.”