The danger to the Alpine region rises with rising temperatures: faster melting of glaciers means the exposure of large detrital areas or glacial moraine. Following heavy rainfall, unconsolidated rocks can develop into mudflows or earth slides that threaten valleys and settlements, while new and fast rising glacial lakes also pose increasing danger. 1)
In the summer of 2006, a glacial flood led to a mudflow in Vadret da l’Alp Ota. One tourist lost her life.
The most spectacular incident in 2006 was a rock slide at the east face of the Eiger, as hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of rocks plunged into the Lower Grindelwald glacier. The main cause appears to be that the Lower Grindelwald glacier retreated, releasing the pressure on the rocky area.
The permafrost is melting:
Permafrost is a 20 to 100 meter thick layer of ice and soil in high mountain ranges, which is supposed to remain frozen all year round. Over the last century, the permafrost boundary has risen by 150 to 200 meters. The temperatures of the permafrost bases in the mountains are also rising at the same rate as the air temperature. 2)
Melting of the base ice means the movement of mountain slopes. Sometimes they move in slow motion down to the valley. But sudden slides of slopes, rocks, detritus, and mud are also possible. In the last decade, all ten of the major mountain slides in Switzerland were in the permafrost zone. 3)
Melting permafrost was also the likely trigger for the catastrophic mountain slide in Veltlin in the Italian Alps, during the extremely rainy summer of 1987. 4)
The Schafberg permafrost above the town of Pontresina is melting.
That is why the Swiss municipality of Engadin built the big Geschiebe dam – to hold back the mudslides and snow slides – at a cost of almost CHF 8 million.
The frequency and intensity of bad weather incidents with disastrous consequences have been on the rise. If storms like “Vivien” and “Wiebke” in 1991 and “Lothar” in 1999 were classified as storms of the century, it would suggest that the frequency and intensity of storms have grown globally. Even the Alps are affected by tornados and hurricane-force storms with unusually high wind speeds. Rapid temperature shifts between warm and cold, drifting snow, and exceptionally heavy snowfalls can trigger major avalanches – as was the case in 1999 in Galtür in the Tyrolean Paznaun Valley, where 38 people lost their lives.
“Floods of the century”, normal floods, and mudflows over the last few years,
the major heat wave in 2003, and the drought in 2006 are clear signs of what is lurking around the corner.
Such climatic extremes are going to intensify. And that will accelerate the retreat of glaciers.
1. Major European rivers like the Rhine, Rhone, and Po all originate from glacial regions of the Alps. The outflow from these glaciers has risen markedly.
2. Water shortages could be the outcome of more frequent and severe flooding. The long-term drinking water reserves contained in glacial ice are at risk. Arctic and Antarctic glaciers represent the biggest sources of fresh water on our planet.
Alpine flora is already heading uphill. Highly competitive kinds of flora are migrating uphill, whereas rare and very well-adjusted mountainous flora is in deep trouble. Once at the mountain top, there’s nowhere else to go: plant and animal species become extinct. Estimates are that of the 400 endemic varieties of Alpine plants, about a quarter faces the risk of extinction. 5)
Air pollution has heavily strained and damaged trees and ecosystems of forests, primarily in the Northern and Southern ranges of the Alps.
On top of this comes climate change with its weather extremes, endangering mountain forests in particular. Climate change promotes storm-related uprooting of trees and mass reproduction of insects. One example of this is the infestation of spruce trees by bark beetles, especially the ips typographus or engraver beetle – even in sub-Alpine forests.
Threats of wildfires in hot years: 450 hectares of mountain forests and barrier woodlands were scorched in 2003.
(We are setting up a separate Website on this subject: www.waldarchiv.de)
Forests are indispensable for protecting the ground, settlements, and the transportation infrastructure, particularly in mountains.
1. The disappearance of white mountains mars the esthetic appeal of the Alps.
2. The end of many ski resorts: Today, one is sure of snow cover at a height of 1.200 meters. This is certain to migrate up to at least 1.500 meters in the foreseeable future. Resort operators are responding with a targeted strategy – by installing more lifts and using equipment like snow cannons.
Ski resorts that lie lower than 1.500 meters will have little else to gain from such expansion, other than debt and ecological damage. Current temperatures are already too high, even for artificial snow-making. In some areas, the heavy usage of water by the equipment means drinking water shortages in winter, or artificial ponds have to be dug for snow-making. And that means deforestation – of even valuable mountain forests. 6)
One should be especially critical about the ecological impact of construction at high elevations and grading for snow-making and ski trails.
Even glaciers are being covered with artificial snow.
3. New ski resorts: High up in the Alps, the ski lifts are heading even higher. The Gesellschaft für ökologische Forschung e.V. (Society for Ecological Research) and CIPRA International conducted a survey in the year 2000. The findings: plans or construction are already underway for 140 new ski resorts and expansions, most of them in virgin Alpine mountains. Not even glaciers are safe from this development. Current glacial ski resorts impart a very sobering impression – especially in the summer.
Plans are underway for new encroachments on glaciers – with supplementary developments and overbuilding of lifts. These actions effectively annul the present glacier conservancy law. Visit http://www.alpenverein.at/naturschutz/ for an update on the threat of developments on glaciers.
4. Mountain trails: Mountain climbing is also becoming more dangerous. Famous “walls of ice” are melting.
Hiking in the high mountains is risky, because of the danger of being hit by rocks. Alpine huts, like the Lobbia-Hütte in the Adamello range, had to be evacuated in the summer of 2003. Often, glacier crossings are impossible to navigate. In the summer of 2003, mountain climbers on the Matterhorn had to be evacuated with helicopters following a mountain slide. And Mont Blanc had to be closed to climbers, because of extremely dangerous conditions.