Switzerland’s glaciers have lost enough ice since 1960 for the meltwater to fill Lake Constance, according to the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL). The Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT), meanwhile, calculates that the volume of Swiss glaciers has de - clined by a good half since the end of the Little Ice Age around 1850.
These vast masses of ice are melting away – and with them, one of our most important reserves of water. But not everyone is watching helplessly: the Engadin glaciologist Felix Keller, for one, is fighting backs.
The snow falling by the base station of the Diavolezza cable car is artificial – although perhaps we should call it natural artificial snow. Because this snow requires no electricity: just glacier water and the pressure resulting from the altitude difference between the water source and the nozzle. We are not talking about just a single snow lance or snow cannon, however: instead, a whole string of nozzles along a suspended “snow cable”. And this is just the beginning, or rather a test, for something much bigger: a bid to save the Morteratsch Glacier. The invention is the brainchild of the Engadin glaciologist Felix Keller. He came up with the idea while fishing in Lake Gravatscha, beside the river Inn further down the valley. At first he dismissed the thought out of hand, only to take it up again and ponder it over as meltwater from the Morteratsch Glacier flowed past. Surely the idea was far too simple?
The idea that struck him out of the blue as he waited for a fish to bite and watched the water flowing past was certainly anything but complex: “It should be possible to retain the water on the glacier in summer and let it freeze again – which could help the glacier survive.” He did not dare tell anyone about it just yet, however, in case his flash of inspiration attracted ridicule. It was music, in the end, that loosened his tongue. Felix Keller is not just a glaciologist but also a keen musician: a fiddler with a particular passion for folk music from northern Europe as well as Argentinian tango. He often performs in a duo with the Dutch professor Hans Oerlemans, likewise a glaciologist – recently also at a New Year’s Eve celebration in the Hotel Morteratsch. After a tango rehearsal, Keller took his musical and scientific partner into his confidence. The Dutchman requested a week to consider the idea. He then declared that it could work, providing the water was made into snow to cover the glacier – which could protect it 100% from melting. This is where the “Schneiseil” (“snow cable”) comes in. It was developed by four Universities of Applied Science (Graubünden, Lucerne, North Western Switzerland and Eastern Switzerland) in collaboration with two companies, Bartholet and Bächler Top Track, and with the support of Innosuisse, the Swiss Innovation Agency. The device consists of a water/ air pipe hung from thick supporting cables, with special snow nozzles fitted direct to the pipe. The unit could be scaled up to a much larger facility that could produce 32,000 tons of snow a day over an area of a square kilometre. In Keller’s scheme, this should be on the Morteratsch Glacier below the Bernina massif. According to Oerlemans’ calculations, the plant could slow down the melting of the Morteratsch Glacier dramatically within 10 years.
Keller took these findings and went on tour, fuelled by his passion for innovative projects. First he visited the local council in Pontresina: they were enthusiastic about the idea. That’s when the serious work began – for as Keller says, the idea was the simplest thing about the whole project. The glaciologist needed money to make it happen, and became a highly effective campaigner for his idea. For that he turned not only to the usual marketing tools but made use of a universal language: music. Whenever motivation was required for action, he would take his fiddle out of its case and start to play: with Oerlemans, but also at times on his own. His playing opened doors wherever he went – and he went to many places. To different embassies, to a Rotary meeting in Hamburg and even as far as Ladakh in northern India.
Here he met Sonam Wangchuk, inventor of the “ice stupa”. Just like Keller’s idea that he had while fishing, Wangchuk’s invention serves as a way of saving water. This region in the Himalayas is known for being exceptionally dry and so requires additional water in summer. The stupas store this water in the form of mighty domes of ice, up to 40 metres tall, reminiscent of the local Buddhist places of prayer known as stupas. From spring to autumn, the ice domes gradually melt, and locals use this water to irrigate their fields. Since 2016, Keller and his team have been building one of these ice stupas every winter at different locations, in collabora - tion with the Chur architect Conradin Clavuot. This year, there is an ice stupa by the base station of the Diavolezza cable car. Here it is not only snowing artificially/naturally thanks to the snow cable, it is also raining ice from a nozzle above the ice stupa: as the water emerges, falls and lands, it freezes, adding another coating to the structure.
The glaciologist is co-director of the Center for Applied Glaciology at the Academia Engiadina in Samedan and a lecturer at the Graubünden University of Applied Sciences for Tourism. As a lecturer at ETH Zurich, he is responsible for training lecturers in the field of environmental science.