Interview with Dr. Felix Keller on melting glaciers

12 September 2023

Dr. Felix Keller is a widely recognized glaciologist. His prime objective is to find a solution to glacier melting waters to help populations who depend on this resource. One day, a series of events led up to the idea behind the MortAlive project, which consists of recycling melted water to produce artificial snow and cover the glacier to protect it. In today’s interview, he tells us more about how the project started and what is its purpose.

Dr. Keller is the first guest of our new series. He suggests to look at the word sustainability through the lenses of “adaptation”, as we are now facing new conditions that require us, as humankind, to adjust.

According to a study by the Carnegie Mellon University, published in January, 41% of the mass of the 215.000 worldwide glaciers will disappear by the end of the century with a temperature rise by 4 degree Celsius and 26% of their mass will disappear if the rise is kept within 1,5 °C Celsius.

Could you tell our readers what the major consequences would be of such a scenario and why it is so important to protect glaciers?

I’m not an expert on data about how fast glaciers are melting but that is a fact. Our children will not ask us if we didn’t see what happened, they will ask us what kind of actions we took.

What I have learned from experience working in this field, is that there are a lot of people living of melting waters. Only in the Himalayan area, 220 million people are considered to be highly dependent on these waters.

I didn’t know it when I started the MortAlive project. I discovered this issue, when Sonam Wangchuk from Ladakh, India asked me to visit the Morteratsch glacier. He is one of the people that will have no future when glaciers are all melted. Therefore, these people are extremely active.

Sonam Wangchuk is the engineer that invented the Ice Stupa Artificial Ice Reservoir Technology in Ladakh, India. His idea was inspired by the experiments of Chewang Norphel and consists of coned-shaped piles of ice created with glacier melting water. The Ice Stupa is a storing technique for water, which enables its reuse in agriculture during warmer months. Did your project take inspiration from the Ice Stupa in Ladakh?

No, our project had already started but it was based mainly on scientific questions. The initial idea came during a lunch, when I was asked if it was possible to stop glaciers from melting and my first answer was “No, it’s impossible. We are losing too much ice to stop it from melting.”

But then I thought “There must be a something to do…” and the day after, while I was fishing, I had the idea of what I now call the “melt water recycling”.

Initially, I simply thought about how I could keep the melting water produced at high altitudes. I wanted to store the water to produce more ice to maintain the glacier. Then, Johannes Oerlemans (one of the best glaciologists in the world. He also won the Balzan Prize in 2022) suggested to use the melting water to produce artificial snow because it is the best material to protect the glacier. In the beginning, I was skeptical for numerous environmental reasons, then I discovered that in Switzerland a new technology was being used. It allows the production of snow without the use of electrical energy and this completely changed my point of view.

We did some calculations and saw that, if the intervention remained local and motivated by the will to help people, who are dependent on melting water, then the results can be significant. However, costs are very high.

Melting water is needed to produce artificial snow and, also, to satisfy people’s basic needs. Is there enough melting water for both?

Only a small percentage of melting water is being used to cover the glacier. A study on the Morteratsch glacier showed that the glacier can lose up to one million tons of ice a day. For the production of artificial snow, 2 million tons of water are needed, so in only two days enough water can be stored to efficiently protect the glacier for the whole year.

I have talked to ecologists who explained to me that right now there is even too much melting water from glaciers in rivers, so much so that I have been asked to take more water but this is not possible.

When and why did you start the project on the Morteratsch glacier?

The answer is simple: we have the best data for this glacier. The project actually started in 1878, when the length of the glacier started to be measured every year. In 1994, Johannes Oerlemans started to measure every 10 minutes the energy balance, which is the factor deciding how much ice will melt off the glacier.

The Morteratsch glacier is only the learning object for us. Currently the Morteratsch glacier doesn’t need this type of intervention, and I hope it remains as such, because people living around this area aren’t dependent on its melting waters.

If it is not necessary for the survival of people living near the glacier, the snow cable system should not be built because it is extremely costly. It has been calculated that it would cost around 150 million Swiss Francs.

Considering the costs and the resources required in terms of research and involvement, do you think that this system is replicable in other countries? Is it possible to replicate it where it is actually needed?

From a technical and natural perspective, we think that this system will be replicable elsewhere but right now we don’t know for sure. We have now presented to the Swiss government a proposal for a study in Ladakh, India, to see if this system is actually applicable in other areas and we are waiting for the approval.

This might not work still but at least we have tried and I’ll be able to say to my grandchildren that I fully committed to this cause.

In economic terms, we talk about opportunity costs. For example, when I visited Leh, the capital of Ladakh, with 30 000 inhabitants, I discovered that they are highly depended on a small glacier, which has now a surface 0.5 km2. When they use water, the costs for them are higher.

Even though the realization of the snow cable system in India might cost 10% of the amount calculated for Switzerland, we are still talking about a substantial sum, that is to say 15 million.

Are you in contact with other countries?

Other countries have also shown their interest for this project. We have presented the idea to a team of Swiss ambassadors during a field trip, and they told us that countries as Chile, Bolivia and Tajikistan are experiencing similar issues to Ladakh, India.

However, the project is now not ready to face such demand. The first aim is to construct the first snow cable system and hopefully we will receive an okay from institutions very soon. We hope that this project is and will be a reality soon but we have no absolute certainty yet. For now, we say that we are optimistic.

How much time do you need to prove that it is working?

We will know in one winter. Experimental sites have been tested for two winters and all problems were solved. Therefore, in one winter some problems might still be present but it is possible to know whether this is the solution.

If the snow cable system is built in summer 2023, then the results might be already available in spring 2024.

How was the start of your project? Did you encounter any resistance?

The project gained a lot of support right from the start. We have always had a lot of opportunities to promote the project.

For example, we were invited by the government of Grison to tell about our project and, now, it supports our initiative.

The problem is almost the opposite because premature enthusiasm might be dangerous. A lot of articles were written making it seems as the solution had been found but we do not know yet.

The expectations are high. People think that I am the man who saves the glaciers but I am actually someone who just tried something and is optimistic on the results.

We believe that change must come from a collective effort and we have noticed that you are also involved in the organization of cultural events to raise awareness on this topic. As a man of science, why do you think it is important to communicate also with artistic means?

(Laughs) This is an old personal question… when I was 20, I didn’t know if I was going to become a professional musician. Then, I became a geographer and it was a good choice.

The organization of these events represents the chance to combine two different worlds together and I think it is the best solution. I even find myself thinking “Why didn’t I do it before?”. For me this is like a dream come true.

How can people take charge of the current situation and support your project?

The most important thing for all of us is the motivation. While I was at the Swiss Technical Institute in Zurich I got to know a study that deals with the so-called Integrated Action Model, which shows that if we want to act, we first have to work on the motivation.

I hope that the MortAlive project will contribute to climate protection because it is important for us and especially, in this case, for who is dependent on melting water.

You are spreading the word about your project among younger generations. What do you think of them as your audience?

I have the pleasure to work at the teachers’ formation in the Swiss Technical Institute and I am always fascinated by the motivation of these young people.

When we realized that the MortAlive project would have been expensive, we created a foundation to collect donations and the first one we received was during Covid and came from a student group from Zurich.

We have a lot of young people who ask to contribute to the project. The most important thing for me in this regard, is to establish a trend in climate protection so we can get closer to sustainability.

Even though the project might still not succeed, do you think that your story and experience will be of inspiration for younger generations?

If we have the energy to believe in the future we will also be creative in finding a solution.

Actually, in Ladakh, India, there is already a system that works and is called Ice Stupa.

Famous examples show us that what initially looks like a failure can turn out to be a success later. Initially, no one gave credit to Mr. Kodak for his idea and now everybody uses his products. The same happened to Mr. Benz, from Mercedes Benz, who was told that it was impossible for everyone to have a car and now we have the reverse problem, too many cars around.

I wanted to conclude this interview with a more personal question. What would you say are the most frustrating and rewarding parts of your job?

(Laughs) I have to think about this one… well, the most frustrating part is the lack of time. I don’t have enough time to do all the things that I would like but, you know, there is nothing I can do to change this.

The most motivating part is that we, as humans, are able to collaborate. It is beautiful that we can all work together because if we are alone it is not the same.

Categorie: Interviste