The glaciers in the Italian Alps are melting with increasing speed as another Europe heatwave keeps temperatures above 0C – even during the night.
The Nero heatwave is expected to bring highs of 40C to some of Italy's cities and it is also having a major impact on the country's mountain ranges.
Nero is the third heatwave to hit Europe this summer, with soaring temperatures causing deadly wildfires in several countries including Italy, Greece and Spain.
As the hot spell continues, unusually high evening temperatures mean Italy's glaciers don't have enough time to regain ice overnight so the long-term pattern of decline is quickly accelerating, according to Francesco Pasi, of Italy’s National Research Council (CNR).
He told Yahoo News UK how at the Capanna Margherita – the highest mountain hut in Europe, sitting at 4,554 metres – temperatures reached 8.9C on Tuesday, one of the highest ever recorded at the site.
Pasi said that overnight, temperatures were mainly around 1.4C, while the previous night they only dipped below zero for a few hours.
"During the night, the glaciers are not going below zero and that's casing the very rapid and strong melting of the glaciers," the meteorologist said.
"We know it's already an established trend, the glaciers have been losing their mass for many years. But there’s no question about it, it's increasing and accelerating.
"The temperature in Switzerland and France is also being affected, so it's all over the Alps. It's really a big problem for all over the region."
"The glaciers are really delicate, it's a balance between the temperature and precipitation," he said, adding that it is hard to predict the full-term impact of this balance being tipped.
Communities are already feeling the impact, with a March report by environmental group Legambiente claiming that 249 Italian ski resorts had closed in recent years due to rising temperatures.
Meanwhile, many species that are crucial to the ecosystem in the Alpine region are at risk due to the rapid rate at which glaciers are melting, according to a study published in May in Nature, Ecology and Evolution.
Recently a Swiss weather balloon designed to measure the "zero-degree line" (the altitude at which the temperature falls to zero) had to climb to an unprecedented height of 5,328 metres.
The MeteoSuisse meteorology service said the balloon, launched from Payerne, measured the zero-degree point – a key meteorological marker – at 5,298 metres overnight, beating last year's record of 5,184 metres.
This is the highest freezing level data ever recorded in the Alps since radio soundings began in the mountain range about 70 years ago, Renato Colucci of the CNR told Yahoo News.
"I have to stress the effect of such a huge heatwave, because one single heatwave, however powerful, has little effect on the environment if before and after the climate is normal," he said.
"The problem is that we are facing, year-after-year, a trend where summers are increasingly long and hot, and this has an important effect on ecosystems and the cryosphere in the Alps."
This week, Switzerland is expected to endure temperatures of 37C at lower altitudes, compared to 40C in France, as Nero brings an anticyclone of very hot air from the Sahara desert to Europe.
While Pasi pointed out that some years are cooler than others, there has been a consistent trend of dwindling ice over the past 10 to 20 years.
He called for greater measures to protect the ecosystem as he warned all Alpine glaciers below 3,500 metres were expected to vanish by 2050 – meaning most of those in Italy. A study by Aberystwyth University estimated that 92% of all other glaciers will be gone before 2100.
"When you look at how the glaciers were 50 years ago and look at them after the year 2000, you can see it’s really changing and we have to look at them in a different way," Pasi added.
What happens when glaciers melt?
While there is still some uncertainty about the full volume of glaciers and ice caps on Earth, if all of them were to melt, global sea levels would rise by around 70 metres – enough to flood every coastal city on the planet, the United States Geological Survey says.
Presently, 10% of land area on Earth is covered with glacial ice, including glaciers, ice caps and the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the National Snow and Ice Data Center has measured.
If enough meltwater flows into the ocean, then the Earth's rotation will change, according to Nasa.
The space agency said that if the ice sheet on Greenland were to completely melt and flow into the ocean, global see levels would rise by about seven metres and the Earth would rotate more slowly, with the length of the day increasing by about two milliseconds.
As melting glaciers add to rising sea levels, they increase coastal erosion and elevate storm surges as warming air and ocean temperatures create more frequent and intense coastal storms, such as hurricanes and typhoons, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
It adds that the glacial melt currently happening in the Antarctic and Greenland is changing the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean and has been linked to collapse of fisheries in the Gulf of Maine and more destructive storms and hurricanes around the planet.
As ocean currents and weather patterns are disrupted worldwide, flooding will become more frequent, fisheries will be affected as different types of fish seek new waters, while other species face losing their food sources and habitats.
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