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Melting points.

Switzerland's mighty glaciers are melting at a rapid rate, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the communities lying below. Mark Lynas takes a journey through the Alps

TIPTOE TO THE EDGE of the Aletschgletscher in the Swiss Alps and you might be one of the few people to hear a mysterious sound. Beyond the gurgle of meltwaters surging through tunnels deep in the ice of Switzerland's longest glacier, you may just catch the low moan of souls waiting out purgatory in the deep crevasses. That's if local folklore is to be believed.

Ancient legend in this part of Valais has it that the souls of sinners are cleansed by ice rather than fire. But these days, as temperatures surge throughout the region because of global warming, Switzerland's mighty glaciers are retreating at an unprecedented rate. So with fewer crevasses to go round, today's unlucky sinners might well find the Pearly Gates shut for good.

Scientists might not be able to prove the threat to lost souls is rising, but they do agree that because of steadily rising global temperatures than half the ice in glaciers has melted since 1850, and 100 glaciers h ave already disappeared altogether. If current trends continue, ice cover by 2050 will be only one fifth of pre-industrial revolution levels. Austria will have no glaciers left at all. And the consequences -- both for people living in the mountain regions, and for those depending on the mighty European rivers that start there -- are likely to be catastrophic.

In Switzerland, one of the most startling examples of glacial retreat is at Morteratsch, near St Moritz. When the small railway station was built 150 years ago, the tongue of the glacier was only a couple of 100 metres away. Victorian tourists would stroll up to the edge of the ice in ten minutes. Now the glacial tongue is nearly three kilometres away. It is nicknamed the `climate trail', because as you walk through the shimmering heat haze, signposts mark off the decades. Stand next to the sign saying `1960' and there are young pine trees already colonising the new ground. Farther on, the plants gradually die out, as the Alpine meadows give way to gravel desert.

At the edge of the ice itself, the sheer speed of the meltdown is apparent. Water is flowing everywhere, and frequent rockfalls tumble down from the moraines left high up the valley sides. In some places boulders the size of houses teeter on the brink of ice ridges, waiting for the ice to melt and pitch them onto the valley floor below. There's a low rumble as an avalanche eclipses part of the towering Pic Morteratsch in a cloud of billowing snow. All around the edge of the glacier snout, collapsed ice caves pile up in a jumble of blue and white debris. It's worth taking a photo, because next year it will all look different -- and as you walk the climate trail, you'll have that little bit farther to go. Perched at about 2,300 metres further up the valley and surrounded by a panorama of glistening ice-peaks is the Bovalhutte -- starting point for some of the highest and most dangerous climbs in the region. The hut's manager is Hans Philipp, himself once a mountain tour guide and a man with the ruddy features of someone who has experienced an awful lot of weather. "See that mountain there?" he says pointing to Pic Bernina, which, at 4,049 metres, is the highest point in the eastern Alps. "This year, on 13 September, it'll be 150 years since they made the first ascent. They had no ice axes or crampons, just a stick. If you look at the old picture, you can see the glacier was 100 to 200 metres thicker at least. The moraine here didn't exist -- the ice covered it."


For the people of Pontresina, back down towards St Moritz, the mountain meltdown holds a more menacing prospect. High above the town, the steep mountain slopes are held together by permafrost, which acts like an icy glue to prevent millions of tons of rocks tumbling down the hillside. But the slopes are beginning to thaw, raising the spectre of a deadly landslide. Work is about to start on a giant 15-metre earth barrier above the town, which planners hope will catch falling debris from above before it has the chance to sweep away homes and lives below.

One of the architects of the plan is Dr Felix Keller, head of tourism and landscape at the Academia Engiadina, based down the valley in Samedan. From under a pile of maps he pulls out a topographical plan of the region -- with permafrost areas coloured in purple to indicate areas of risk. "Since 1990 we've had about ten major landslides in Switzerland, and they all started near the border of the permafrost zone," he says. Another diagram shows a cross-section of Pic Corvatsch, which, at 3,450 metres, is a high point for tourists seeking spectacular Alpine views. The summit cable car station is built on an outcrop of frozen rock, under which scientists have drilled boreholes to test the stability of the slope. They concluded that at -5 [degrees] C the station's rocky foundations are stable. But once the temperature rises to -2 [degrees] C, there will be an imminent risk of collapse. So what's the rock temperature now? Keller smiles grimly. "Minus three," he says.

"People say the weather is different to how it was before," says Andreas Weissen, climate campaigner with environmental group, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "They are afraid, because the two strongest storms on the historical record both occurred in the 1990s." The second of these -- nick-named Lothar by German meteorologists -- hit in December 1999 and flattened large areas of forest across western Europe, hitting France and Switzerland particularly hard. Five years earlier, Weissen's own home town of Brig, where he has lived for more than 40 years, was devastated by a mudslide. The disaster, which saw much of the town's centre submerged in a foaming brown torrent and left two people dead, cost 242.2 [pounds sterling] million.

Swiss meteorologists, however, are urging caution. "We really have to avoid a panic situation," says Stephan Bader, co-author of a wide-ranging report on projected climate change impacts for the federal government. He points to a graph of wind speeds recorded between 1860 and the year 2000. "You see, there is less risk of Beaufort seven, eight and nine ]eight is gale and nine severe gale]," he says. "We actually have less storms today than we had in the past." But two massive storms in the space of ten years? "That's not statistically significant," he counters. "My job is to look back through the years and try to see a real trend.'

Bader's report painstakingly reconstructs Switzer Ice sheet or frozen tundra land's climate record as far back as the Middle Ages. Although the country's temperature is now, on average, 1.2 [degrees] C higher than before the Industrial Revolution, extremely warm climate events have happened before. The end of December 1758 was so warm that "people went barefoot and the fields could be tilled as if it were spring", while in 1540 children were still playing in the Rhine at Christmas. What is definitely unprecedented, however, is the almost complete absence of winter snow in the Swiss lowlands since the 1980s.


However uncertain the long-term climate record may be, scientists seem to agree on one point -- that the speed of the current warming trend is the biggest concern. "I would say the major problem with climate change is not so much the amplitude of warming, it's the speed of the change which is taking place," says Professor Martin Beniston, director of the University of Fribourg's geography department. "Most of the major changes in the past have taken place over several millennia, and we're talking about the same kinds of changes in climate over the next 50 or 100 years, which is unprecedented."


According to Beniston, the Alps are the most closely studied mountain range in the world, providing valuable scientific clues about other changes farther afield. And the story they tell is repeated everywhere, from the Andes and the Rockies to the Himalaya. Almost every glacier in the world is retreating -- and in countries like India where glaciers keep mighty rivers such as the Ganges running, their demise threatens the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people. "Rich countries will be able to adjust -- it might cost them a little bit but there won't be any major disasters, at least within the next 50 years or so," concludes Beniston. What will happen in the poorer parts of the World, meanwhile, is anyone's guess.

All downhill from here?

Glaciers are formed by hundreds of years of accumulating snow. It is this snow which has drawn hordes of tourists to Switzerland for winter skiing. With prestigious resorts such as Zermart, St Moritz and Davos, the country boasts nearly 2,000 ski installations. But these are threatened by the big thaw, especially the ski centres at lower altitudes -- of which several hundred are dotted across the country.

At St Moritz, the last decade has seen insufficient snow levels to sustain a skiing industry which makes up more than 70 per cent of the regional tourist economy. Technical innovations such as artificial snow have helped make up the shortfall, but that costs too much in the long run to be viable. "These are first-aid measures only," says Dr Felix Keller, of the Academia Engiadina, who says that climate change is more of an economic than an ecological problem for the area. "Artificial snow production is so expensive that it isn't possible to construct an artificial winter."


Climate Risks: The Challenge for Alpine Regions. Final Scientific Report NRP 31, by Stephan Bader and Pierre Kunz. Go to:

Environmental Change in Mountains and Uplands, by Professor Martin Beniston, University of Fribourg. Purchase via

The World Glacier Monitoring Service. Department of Geography at the University of Zurich (German only)

WWWF International. Web:
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Title Annotation:climate affects Swiss Alps
Author:Lynas, Mark
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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