Little Ice Age glacier history of the Central and Western Alps from pictorial documents

H.J. Zumbühl, S.U. Nussbaumer


The Lower Grindelwald Glacier (Bernese Oberland, Switzerland) consists of two parts, the Ischmeer in the east (disconnected) and the Bernese Fiescher Glacier in the west. During the Little Ice Age (LIA), the glacier terminated either in the area of the “Schopffelsen” (landmark rock terraces) or advanced at least six times (ten times if we include early findings) even further down into the valley bottom forming the “Schweif” (tail). Maximal ice extensions were reached in 1602 and 1855/56 AD. The years after the end of the LIA have been dominated by a dramatic melting of ice, especially after 2000. The Mer de Glace (Mont Blanc area, France) is a compound valley glacier formed by the tributaries Glacier du Tacul, Glacier de Léschaux, and Glacier de Talèfre (disconnected). During the LIA, the Mer de Glace nearly continuously reached the plain in the Chamonix Valley (maximal extensions in 1644 and 1821 AD). The retreat, beginning in the mid-1850s, was followed by a relatively stable position of the front (1880s until 1930s). Afterwards the retreat has continued until today, especially impressive after 1995. The perception of glaciers in the early times was dominated by fear. In the age of Enlightenment and later in the 19th century, it changed to fascination. In the 20th century, glaciers became a top attraction of the Alps, but today they are disappearing from sight. With a huge number of high-quality pictorial documents, it is possible to reconstruct the LIA history of many glaciers in the European Alps from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Thanks to these pictures, we get an image of the beauty and fascination of LIA glaciers, ending down in the valleys. The pictorial documents (drawings, paintings, prints, photographs, and maps) of important artists (Caspar Wolf, Jean-Antoine Linck, Samuel Birmann) promoted a rapidly growing tourism. Compared with today’s situations, it gives totally different landscapes – a comparison of LIA images with the same views of today is probably the best visual proof for the changes in climate.


glacier fluctuations; pictorial documents; Lower Grindelwald Glacier; Mer de Glace; European Alps; Little Ice Age (LIA)

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