Drone research confirms Pyrenees’ glaciers vanishing amid climate change

Drone glaciers

Climate change researchers have used a range of drone technologies to confirm fears that southern Europe’s largest glaciers in the Pyrenees mountains are rapidly melting amid rising temperatures – and may soon disappear altogether.

Experts from the Pyrenean Institute of Ecology published a study in August based on high-resolution imagery and LiDAR data collected by drones. Those were compared to similar aerial information taken a decade earlier, and with high-resolution satellite shots. What that found was both gutting and terrifying: The 24 glaciers in the Pyrenees mountain chain between France and Spain “shrank by 23.2%, and thickness decreased by 6.3 m on average” over the past 10 years. 

Three of those glaciers, meanwhile, had reduced so radically that they’ve either disappeared entirely, or now blend into the surrounding land masses as non-moving ice. In that state, the ancient floes no longer fit the definition of glaciers.

Like others around the globe, the shrinkage of glaciers in the Pyrenees isn’t new, but it has advanced at a steady and astonishingly rapid rate. 

The researchers blame that fast melting on the average 2.7 Fahrenheit increase across the Franco-Spanish range since the start of the 19th century. The advanced degree of damage done by that warming has probably condemned the Pyrenees glaciers to vanishing before long, and also carries dire warnings for others around the world. 

“There is no sign of slowdown in shrinkage of Pyrenean glaciers in respect to previous decades,” the report stated. “This indicates the continuous decline of Pyrenean glaciers toward an ice-free mountain range in the coming decades.”

“What we are seeing here is an advance warning of what may happen in other mountains, like in the Alps,” said Jesús Revuelto, one of the study’s authors. “Their glaciers have much more mass and entity, but we are showing them the way.”

The research was carried out over the summer using drones equipped with high-definition cameras and LiDAR sensors. Images from those were transformed to into 3D visuals. Those were compared with similar data collected during 2020 flights, as well as missions flown back in 2011. Feeds from high-resolution optical satellites rounded out the tech input. 

The ability to cover the full range of terrain examined using drones – and from myriad angles and perspectives to boot – was a critical asset to the effort’s goal of getting the fullest picture of the glaciers’ erosion. Unfortunately, that merely confirmed the experts’ fears.

“[It] indicates that glacier shrinkage in the Pyrenees and wastage have not slowed down in the last few years,” the study concludes, “[and] that Pyrenean glaciers are in a clear imbalance with the regional climate, and will likely disappear in the next few decades.”

Photo: Tim Oun

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