'This is the canary in the coal mine': Scientists warn Spain's glaciers will vanish in years

The glaciers in the Pyrenees have been there for 100,000 years but they may disappear within a lifetime, ITV News Science Correspondent Martin Stew reports

When you picture Spain you think of sun, sea and perhaps sangria. But in the Pyrenees mountain range, which runs along the border with France, there is plenty of snow and rivers of slow moving ice, known as glaciers. But for how much longer?

The number of glaciers in the Pyrenees has fallen from 100 at the end of the 19th Century to 50 in the 1980s and last year just 17.

They used to cover an area the size of 5,000 football pitches. Now, that number is more like 400.

I travelled with a group of Spanish scientists from the Pyrenean Institute of Ecology and CSIC to the peak of Aneto.

At 3,404m it's the highest in the Pyrenees and the third highest in Spain.

Pictures taken of the Aneto glacier in 1980 and 2023 show the rate at which it is disappearing (Credit: Pyrenean Institute of Ecology and CSIC)

After a daunting scramble across a rocky path with vertical drops either side, we reached the spot where one of many thermometers has been positioned to monitor changing climate in the mountains.

Last year was the warmest they've ever recorded. Even probes drilled into the rock and permafrost are recording an increase in temperature. 

It's from the air you get the clearest view of what this is doing to the Aneto glacier. Jesus Revuelto, one of the scientists, flew a specialist drone high above the ice sheet.

Comparisons with similar pictures taken in the 1980s show a dramatic change. They're also able to map the thickness of ice and model how fast it is melting. 

'To stay healthy and alive you should have at least 50% white area. As you can see this one's dying'

Jesus told ITV News there is no chance Spain's remaining glaciers will survive. What's more they may only have a few years left. 

To get a closer look, lead scientist Nacho Lopez Moreno took me, cameraman Ben England and producer Paul Tyson onto the Aneto glacier itself.

Crampons are essential for grip on the steep melting surface. Nacho explained that as recently as a decade ago the ice thickness was decreasing by about a metre a year. Now that's more like three metres a year.

ITV News travelled to the peak of Aneto in the Pyrenees mountain range. Credit: ITV News

The glaciers have shaped these mountains for more than 100,000 years. Carbon dating of ice drilled from deep shows they survived the warmer spell in Roman times, but are no match for the modern warming we are seeing now.

Nacho told ITV News that whilst there have been warmer temperatures in our planet's past what's different now is that humans are contributing to the change. It's also the first time we will have lived through a dramatic warning so we "are playing with a toy we don't understand".

By comparison to the Alps, the glaciers in the Pyrenees are very small. Nearby towns don't rely on them for water as is the case in huge areas of France, Austria and Italy.

Nacho says the rapid acceleration of melting we're seeing in Spain sets an ominous precedent and is the "canary in the coal mine".

If something similar is repeated in the Alps, existing models of melting speeds will need to be revised. Instead of lasting for centuries many may die within decades.

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