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The Consequences

How do climate change and melting glaciers impact the Alps?

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)

Gletschersee am Triftgletscher/Schweiz, 2002 © GöFGletschersee am Triftgletscher/Schweiz, 2006 © GöF
Glacial Lake of the Trift Glacier, Switzerland: 2002 & 2006 © GöF

 © GöF Gletschersee oberhalb Macugnaga/Italien, 2002 © GöF
Glacial Lake above Macugnaga, Italy, 2002 © GöF

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)

Bergsturz Bormio/Veltlin, Italien, 1987 © GöF
Mountain Slide, Bormio/Veltlin, Italy, 1987 © GöF

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.

Auffangdamm oberhalb Pontresina/Engadin, Schweiz, 2003 © GöF
Catch Basin above Pontresina/Engadin, Switzerland, 2003 © GöF

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.

Lawine Valzur/Paznauntal, Österreich, 1999 © GöF
Avalanche, Valzur/Paznaun Valley, Austria, 1999 © GöF

“Floods of the century”, normal floods, and mudflows over the last few years,

Schlammlawine Aostatal/ Italien, 2000 © GöF
Mudslide, Aosta Valley/Italy, 2000 © GöF

the major heat wave in 2003, and the drought in 2006 are clear signs of what is lurking around the corner.

Abgebrannter Schutzwald oberhalb Leuk/Wallis, Schweiz, 2003 © GöF
Scorched Barrier Woodland above Leuk/Wallis, Switzerland, 2003 © GöF

Such climatic extremes are going to intensify. And that will accelerate the retreat of glaciers.

Climate change is threatening Europe’s water reservoirs:

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.

Rhone unterhalb Rhonegletscher bei Gletsch/Schweiz, 2003 © GöF
Rhone River Downstream of Rhone Glacier near Gletsch/Switzerland, 2003 © GöF

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.

Climate change is reducing biodiversity:

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)

Alpenflora © GöF
© GöF

Destabilized Ecosysytems of Forests

More frequent weather extremes destabilize the ecosystems of forests and extend existing damage

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)

Bergwald im Dauerstress: Waldschäden und Sturmwurf/Allgäu, Bayern, 1988 © GöF Bergwald im Dauerstress: Waldschäden und Sturmwurf/Allgäu, Bayern, 1995 © GöF
Mountain Forest under Constant Distress: Forest Damage and Uprooted Trees, Allgäu/Bavaria, 1988 and 1995 © GöF

Forests are indispensable for protecting the ground, settlements, and the transportation infrastructure, particularly in mountains.

Schutzwald oberhalb Andermatt/Uri, Schweiz, 1998 © GöF
Barrier Forest above Andermatt/Uri, Switzerland, 1998 © GöF

Lawinenverbau oberhalb St.Anton/Vorarlberg, Österreich, 1998 © GöF
Avalanche Barrier above St. Anton/Vorarlberg, Austria, 1998 © GöF

Climate change is endangering the main foundation of Alpine tourism:

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.

Schneekanonen: Bau am Patscherkofel © GöF Schneekanonen: Betrieb oberhalb Kitzbühl/Österreich © GöF Schneekanonen: Piste Madonna di Campiglio/Italien © GöF
Snow Cannons in use at Patscherkofel, Operating above Kitzbühl/Austria, Madonna di Campiglio Trail/Italy © GöF

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)

Bauarbeiten für einen Speicherteich zu der Schneekanonenanlage am Stümpfling/Spitzingsee, Juni 2006 © GöF Bauarbeiten für einen Speicherteich zu der Schneekanonenanlage am Stümpfling/Spitzingsee, Oktober 2006 © GöF
Construction of a Storage Pond for Snow Cannons, Stümpfling/Spitzingsee, June and October 2006 © GöF

One should be especially critical about the ecological impact of construction at high elevations and grading for snow-making and ski trails.

Verlegung für Schneekanonen und Pistenplanierung zum Kitzsteinhorn/Österreich © GöF
Grading for Snow Cannons and Ski Trails, Kitzsteinhorn/Austria © GöF

Even glaciers are being covered with artificial snow.

{{einzelfotos:11-239026s.jpg|Gletscherskigebiet mit Schneekanonen
Hintertux/Tirol, Österreich © GöF
Glacial Ski Resort with Snow Cannons, Hintertux/Tirol, Austria © GöF

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.



Glacial Ski Resort, Schneeferner/Zugspitze, Bavaria in Summer 2003… …and in the Previous Winter © GöF

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.



North Face of Jamspitze/Silvretta, Austria 1929 and 2001 © GöF

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.

3) Interview with Felix Keller, Dolomiten No. 67, March 21, 2001
4) See: “Wenn dem Dauerfrost warm wird” / When it’s warm for permafrost: 2nd Alpine Report, International Alpine Protection Commission, CIPRA, Bern 2001
5) Grabherr, Georg: Klimawandel verändert die Gipfelflora / Climate Change Alters the Summit Flora, Alpine Report 2