The Schneeferner

A vanishing glacier

Remains of a large icefield

The Schneeferner (german:  Schnee = Snow, Ferner = Galcier, i.e. snow glacier), that gave the Schneefernerhaus its name, is the largest glacier in the bavarian Alps. Albeit it's only the remainder of the large Plattachferner that covered the better part of the Zugspitzplatt, the trough that is bordered by the summits of  the Plattspitzen, the Schneefernerkopf and the Zugspitze. 

At the beginning of the last century the retreating glacier split into the northern and the southern Schneeferner. Due to its exposure to the sun and little snow input by avalanches, the southern Schneeferner has since all but vanished. 

The northern Schneeferner is also withering away. Due to its thickness and topography it's not so much the ice covered area that shrinks but the volume of the ice. A geophysical survey in 2011 revealed a maximal depth of about 50m.

The glacier around 1900
The glacier around 1900
Aerial photo of the Schneeferner around 1950.
Aerial photo of the Schneeferner around 1950.

Glacier retreat and climate change

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) expects the duration of snow cover to decrease by several weeks for each °C of temperature increase in the Alps.  This will cause an upward shift of the glacier equilibrium line, above which a glacier grows and below which a glacier melts, by 60 to 140 m/°C. Accordingly alpine glaciers will suffer a volume reduction between 30% and 70%depending on their local topography.

The Schneeferner is exposed to the sun and get's little input from avalanch snow. Thus it is expected to slowly cave in during the next decades. Eventually it will be covered completly by the scree sliding down from the surrounding mountains.

When considering the retreat of the Schneeferner as an indicator for global warming, two things should be taken into account, though: On the one hand the behavior of the Schneeferner is influenced by the skiing activities on it, especially by the ski-lifts, the compaction due to preparation of the slopes with heavy machines (snowcats etc.) and the measures taken to protect certain areas from the sun. 

On the other hand, there is no "natural" size of a glacier. Comparing the current size with a glacial high during a particulary cold period in climate history may thus be misleading. Nevertheless the global retreat of the glaciers is a clear indicator of the current global warming.


Sources: IPCC, Bayerische Gletscher

The remains of the Schneeferner glacier in the summer of 2003.
The remains of the Schneeferner glacier in the summer of 2003.
The slope below the Schneefernerhaus has become much steeper since the 1930s (inset: an advertisement from the early days of tourism on the Zugspitze). The retreating glacier caused the gravel to slide down.
The slope below the Schneefernerhaus has become much steeper since the 1930s (inset: an advertisement from the early days of tourism on the Zugspitze, (c) Stiftung Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin, Hist. Archiv). The retreating glacier caused the gravel to slide down.