Gauligletscher: Outrunning Google Earth

Gauligletscher: Outrunning Google Earth

After a while exploring glaciers in the Alps, I decided that I wanted to view a glacier where it was calving into a glacial lake, “Alaska style.” While I was unaware if one existed, I figured that it must be possible in such a large mountain range. That elicited a fury of exploration on Google Earth, which gave rise to the Gauligletscher, located on the eastern end of the Bernese Alps, forming the western slope of the Aare River valley. Below is what I expected to see when I got there:

I dutifully saddled up the airplane and, after circling around Dammastock and the Rhône Glacier, aimed for the rugged basin that comprises where the Gauligletscher and its neighbors are located. This is what I found when I got there:


Clearly, the glacier has receded an appreciable amount – 1,541 feet to be exact as per map measurements. The problem is, it is difficult as of this juncture to understand when Google acquired the satellite image that gave rise to my false expectations. Copyright notices are updated to the current year, which means the image could be as much as five years old. In any case, five years is a miniscule period of time in geological history. I would not expect mountains to move equally as much I as expect glaciers to have a loose pattern of predictable behavior.

The mystery does not end there. I had previously overlooked the Rhône Glacier as a possibility to see ice calving into a lake, as Google Earth indicated that there was no glacial lake at the tongue. On the same flight where I had wondered around Dammastock and the Rhône Glacier, I did indeed find such a lake, including extensive tarps at the end, where the locals are trying to slow the glacier’s decline, to maintain it as a tourist attraction.

Tongue of Rhône Glacier. Note evidence of how deep the glacier used to be.
Rhône Glacier with terminal lake.
Icebergs from Rhône Glacier.
Meltwater from the glacier, beneath the lake.