ARE THE ALPS MELTING?
27th August 2017 | James Cove, PlanetSKI Editor
Huge mudslides, gigantic rockfalls, glaciers melting and summer ski areas closing: and that’s just in the last week. PlanetSKI reports.
It may seem fanciful and exaggerated but geologists know it is happening – the question is not whether the Alps are melting but rather by how much and what are the likely consequences.
The summer temperatures in the Alps have been slowly but steadily on the rise in past decades and this appears to be having a significant impact on the mountains that is beginning to be felt.
Last Wednesday there was a huge mudslide on the Piz Cengalo mountain in Switzerland caused by a rockfall.
It narrowly missed the village of Bondo.
The slide area is 5km long and 10s of metres high in places.
The vibrations set off seismometers across Switzerland, which measured it as the equivalent of a magnitude 3.0 earthquake, according to the Swiss Seismological Service.
Four million cubic metres of rock came down.
The size of the slide was a shock, and some scientists warn of more to come.
Switzerland’s Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, has been analysing temperatures all over the Alps.
“We have bore holes at different depths in different terrain and the ones that are in rock walls are showing a distinct warming over the last 10 to 20 years,” said Marcia Philips from the Institute to the BBC. She is a specialist permafrost researcher.
“We have a problem if the temperature rises above -1.5C because the permafrost has a stabilising function,” she added.
The mountains are not simply made of solid rock.
They are fractured and cracked and between the layers there is ice – that is called permafrost.
However the ice is melting thus making the rocks unstable.
Many scientists are deeply worried about the future.
This summer has been one of the worst in memory for summer skiing.
The Mölltal glacier in Austria has been forced to call an end to summer skiing this year as a result of hot weather.
The glacier in Carinthia aims to open from mid-June all the way through to mid-May, but is now closed to skiers.
Skiing will remain suspended until conditions improve.
This is how it currently looks on the glacier webcam as the rising temperatures take their toll:
It follows the closure last month of the Stelvio Pass glacier in Italy.
There were difficult conditions on the glacier at Tignes in France when PlanetSKI’s chief reporter, Jane Peel, visited.
The glacier at Tignes is now closed.
Changing weather patterns have also led to the decision not to build the popular Dachstein freestyle Superpark near Schladming in Austria this autumn.
I was in the French resort of Les2Alpes back in June when it opened for summer skiing and snowboarding.
By general consensus the summer conditions were sadly at their worst in recent years.
There were puddles of water to avoid on the t-bars first thing in the morning.
My take is if you want to experience summer glacier skiing then you don’t want to wait too long.
It may not be around in a few years.
Of perhaps more long-term concern is what impact rising temperatures may have on the permafrost that affects the high altitude areas across the Alps.
Its reduction will undoubtedly cause further rockfalls as the mountains are unable to bind themselves together, but there is also a significant threat to the alpine ski resorts.
Many of the structures from lift stations, to pylons and high altitude buildings are built into the permafrost and were designed on this basis.
If the permafrost melts then the structures will become unstable with significant potential consequences.
In preparation, the avalanche institute has already produced a book “Building in Permafrost” with guidelines on how to build safely.
It is possible but will be very expensive.
The evidence of the melt is everywhere to be seen and the glaciers are perhaps the best visibile sign as they retreat back up the mountains.
We mentioned the glacier ski resorts closing early this summer.
They have also been giving up their secrets.
Three bodies of people who died in the 1990s have been found on Mont Blanc as the Miage glacier melts.
We reported on it in PlanetSKI’s News in Brief last week, Thursday 24th August.
Officials say they expect more bodies to be discovered in the Alps as glaciers recede.
Last month the frozen bodies of a Swiss couple missing for 75 years were found on a glacier above the resort of Les Diablerets.
Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin had disappeared after going to tend their cows in August 1942.
We reported on it on 18th July in News in Brief.
Scientists are now calling for urgent action so they can monitor the situation.
The fact the huge mudslide of last week claimed no victims in the village was not an accident.
An automated warning system that was installed in Bondo after another large landslide in December 2011 registered movement on the Piz Cengalo mountain, alerting the emergency services.
Roads were automatically closed into the village and more than 100 people were moved out.
We can expect to see much more monitoring in the coming years.
The rock fall and mudslide near Bondo in Graubunden this week could be the first of many such incidents as the mountains warm up.
But it is not – new see below for a short film I made for PlanetSKI in Saas-Fee in the summer of 2009 about the growing problem of the summer glacier melt:
So, are the Alps melting?
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