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Simulation reveals the evolution of Alpine ice over 120,000 years

The European Alps have witnessed the advance and retreat of glaciers for over 115,000 years. Fluctuating ice during the last glacial period significantly shaped the region, carving out valleys and leaving imprints on the landscape.

Visualizing Alpine ice evolution

A new computer model has reconstructed the evolution of Alpine ice cover over the last 120,000 years with “unprecedented precision.” This innovation offers a captivating visual experience, and marks a significant advancement in the realm of glaciology and climatology.

The research project was conducted by experts from the Universities of Lausanne, Bern, and Zürich. The computer model makes it possible to understand the past distribution of snowfall in Alpine valleys, as well as the evolution of glaciers, the researchers noted. 

Model complexity

“There are geomorphological clues in the field, such as moraines and erratic boulders, which bear witness to the past imprint of glaciers on the lowlands,” explained study first author Guillaume Jouvet, a glaciologist at the University of Lausanne.

“We used these traces to validate our simulation, and everything matched. Because of the complexity of the modeling, it took us 6 years to correctly set up our climate and glaciological models, and finally get the right climate and glaciers that match what we observe in reality.” 

Verifying the model

A challenge arises when attempting to verify the model beyond 24,000 years. This limitation is due to the glacial maximum during that period, which eradicated all prior evidence, making validation difficult.

Climate change 

The simulation is a powerful tool for framing our understanding of global warming. A comparison of past and present reveals a stark difference. 

“The image of the different glacial cycles is quite telling,” said Jouvet. “24,000 years ago, we can see that cities such as Lausanne were covered by more than one kilometer of ice. It’s obvious that past cycles, caused by orbital variations of the Earth, are nothing like what’s happening now, where greenhouse gases play an active role in glacier melt.”

“What is most striking is the speed of current climate change (barely a few decades) compared with the infinitely long time span of the ice ages.”

Study limitations

One limitation is the model’s resolution, which might overestimate the ice cover due to an inability to replicate the intricate topography of high mountains, but the scientists are already addressing this issue. 

“We have just started a new project using artificial intelligence, which will be used to speed up our models and reach a necessary resolution of 200m,” said Jouvet.

More about the European Alps 

The European Alps, often simply referred to as the Alps, is a prominent mountain range stretching across Central Europe. 

Covering an area of approximately 200,000 square kilometers, these mountains are known for their breathtaking landscapes and towering peaks. 

The Alps are also known for their influence on the cultures, economies, and environments of the countries they span. These countries include Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia, and Switzerland. 


The Alps were formed millions of years ago by the collision of the African and European tectonic plates. This collision caused the land to buckle and fold, resulting in the majestic mountain range we see today.

Mont Blanc, located on the French-Italian border, is the highest peak in the Alps, reaching an elevation of 4,809 meters (15,777 feet).

Climate and ecology

The Alpine region experiences varied weather conditions, ranging from an oceanic climate at the foothills to a polar climate at its highest elevations. These diverse conditions support a wide variety of plants and animals, with many species being endemic to the region.

Economic importance

The Alps play a vital role in the European economy. They are a hub for tourism, particularly skiing and snowboarding in the winter and hiking, mountain biking, and paragliding in the warmer months. The region is also rich in minerals, and historically, mining was a significant industry.

Cultural influence

The Alps have played a crucial role in shaping the cultures of the peoples who live in and around them. From Alpine music and yodeling to fondue and other mountain foods, the influence of the Alps is deeply rooted in European traditions.


Given their ecological importance, many parts of the Alps are protected areas. The Alpine Convention, an international treaty signed in 1991, aims to promote sustainable development in the Alpine region and protect it from environmental degradation.

Video Credit: UNIL

The research is published in the Journal of Glaciology.

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