Melting glaciers: ecosystems are being built, how can we save these new lands?

On this scorching October day, the sight of Tré-la-Tête is deserted: in a narrow valley on the western edge of the white giant, the fourth largest glacier in France flows violently into a gray lake. blue that formed at it. feet, then into a stream which flows into the valley of Contamines-Montjoie (Haute-Savoie).

About 2,000 meters above sea level, the lake, like its surrounding rocks, is marked by long glacier-scraped streaks, or “guilis”, small pools surrounded by wild reeds, which have come to light in recent years. years, as the glacier mass receded.

These spaces are gradually “colonized by living beings”, explains glaciologist Jean-Baptiste Bosson, coordinator of the Ice&Life project.

Based in Annecy, this group of dedicated scientists conducts both field research and research on the development of all glaciers in the world, advocating for their protection and the protection of the primary ecosystems resulting from their retreat.

Until now, little-protected glacial and post-glacial spaces are “completely unimaginable”, although they have a “major role” in mitigating and adapting to climate change, they insist: they can, for example, filter and store water, sequester carbon. and promoting biodiversity.

The retreating Bossons glacier above Chamonix in Haute-Savoie on July 30, 2023 ©AFP

A living sanctuary

We have melted the ice, it has not been possible to save it. Maybe we have a second chance (protecting) the nature that comes from retreating glaciers“, emphasizes Mr. Bosson, who speaks of a “living sanctuary”.

Although there are landscapes around Mont Blanc that have been transformed by humans over thousands of years, these glacial areas are untouched by any human influence.

Thus, a new phase of “primary forest” appeared below in the former glacial wake. Higher up, the edges of the lake are gradually colonized by small colorful flowers.

Geographer Kenzo Heas believes these are “pioneer” species that can eventually provide “fertile soil for other types of ecosystems such as grasslands, heaths and why not forests”.

Here, “Nature decides and she makes the best decisions!“, sums up Mr Bosson.

The French Alps alone have released “more than 400 km2, or 4 times the surface area of ​​Paris”, since the end of the “Little Ice Age”, the very cold period in Europe and North America from the 14th century to 1850, the scientist explains.

At Earth’s scale, where there are about 210,000 glaciers, by 2100 there will be vast “thawed” areas that could be the size of Nepal or even Finland, depending on climate scenarios.

An explanatory board about the operation of the glacier and the perturbations it faces due to global warming ©AFP


Melting also creates countless new lakes and wetlands. However, if all the glaciers can’t be saved, “a big lake or wetland is the best we can get” for the proper functioning of the water cycle, Mr Bosson stresses.

But those spaces and the water or minerals they contain run the risk of attracting “tremendous desire” from businesses or ski areas very quickly, he worries.

They must therefore be protected as soon as possible, for example by granting them a special status that could be the subject of an international treaty. Since most of the land in question is in the public domain and therefore does not need to be bought, “there is a real stake here, low economic and political costs with huge upside,” he argues.

Ice&Life is already planning to “put solutions on the table” from the One Planet – Polar summit, which will focus on the situation of the poles and glaciers in November. This topic will also be in the center of attention in 2025, which the UN has declared as the “International Year of Glacier Conservation”.

Glaciers are “extraordinary allies for raising awareness and catalyzing a collective response,” Boson notes, because they “surprise the public.”

Georgie Collins

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