From the collapse of a serac on Marmolada Peak to the closure of mountain huts after rock falls on Mont Blanc, the impacts of climate change have never been more apparent in Western Europe’s highest mountain range.
The problems for the birthplace of modern mountaineering and alpinism began in early July when a serac fell on Marmolada Peak, the tallest mountain in the Dolomites. The collapse of the serac led to an avalanche that killed 11 people and wounded 8 others.
Before the collapse, the region had been enduring an unprecedented heatwave with the summit of the 3,343-metre (10,968-foot) peak recording a record-high temperature of 10 ºC (50 ºF).
Authorities determined unusually high temperatures in the region combined with an exceptionally dry winter were partially responsible for the avalanche, in which the pinnacle of the mountain’s glacier broke off and careened down the side of the mountain.
Shortly after, French authorities closed refuges on Mont Blanc’s Goûter and Tête Rousse routes due to rockfalls, with some the size of a refrigerator reportedly crashing down.
While the mountain was not officially closed, local authorities warned climbers not to attempt the ascent from the western flanks. The mayor of one resort town at the foot of Mont Blanc even recommended that climbers put down a €15,000 deposit to cover potential rescue and funeral costs.
Several local guiding companies shuttered operations on the peak due to the danger presented by the retreating glacier and loose scree left in its wake.
While no single weather event can be linked directly to climate change, experts believe that decreasing precipitation in the winter and higher temperatures year-round will make avalanches and rockfalls more common, especially in the peak Alpine climbing season.
What climate change is doing to the Alps’ glaciers
Data revealed to Reuters reportedly shows the Alps’ glaciers are on pace for their most significant loss of ice mass in the last 60 years.
Searing heatwaves across the mountain range and the lack of snow in the winter have been widely attributed to the retreat of the glaciers.
According to Thomas Häusler, a climate expert at WWF Switzerland, lower levels of snowfall in winter means less snow is converted into firn and ultimately ice mass on the glacier.
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As a result, glaciers cannot recuperate the mass loss during spring and summer melting, which has accelerated their retreat in the Alps.
Additionally, ice has a lower surface albedo than snow. Less snow on the glacier means less light reflected into space and more heat absorption from the glacier, which also strongly accelerates melting.
How melting glaciers impact mountaineering
These melting glaciers have a profound effect on the surrounding communities and significantly impact mountaineers and trekkers.
“The shrinking of a glacier can lead to destabilization of mountainsides, landslides or rock falls with negative consequences for pastures, human settlements installations (transmission lines, ski resort infrastructure etc.), mountain paths and mountaineering routes, and the population,” Häusler told ExpedReview.
“Glaciers that are disintegrating can result in large ice avalanches, which may trigger additional rock falls, landslides or mudslides,” he added. “Disappearing glaciers can alter mountaineering paths or make access to mountain huts more difficult.”
Local stakeholders and mountain guides react
Nicholas Bornstein, the founder of Protect Our Winters Switzerland, an advocacy group, told ExpedReview that mountaineers would have to adapt to deteriorating summer climbing conditions in the Alps, shifting their expeditions to earlier in the season.
“We are already observing a trend that the summer season is increasingly being shortened as some routes become unnavigable in the middle of summer due to rockfall or bare glaciers,” he said. “We expect this trend to continue in the future.”
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Bornstein added that the impacts of rising temperatures in the Alps, less glacier cover, more extreme weather events and intensified rockfalls would force guides and local authorities to react sooner rather than later.
“This may include measures like the closing of mountain huts that lead up to peaks, mountain guides not offering some ascension routes due to dangerous conditions or authorities demanding deposits to cover rescue costs as has happened in some regions of the Alps this summer,” he said.
How mountaineers can mitigate their impacts on climate change
While their impact on climate change is indirect, Bornstein said virtually all activities related to mountaineering emit CO2.
“First and foremost, the transport of people to the mountains: most people travel to the mountains by car,” he said. “In Switzerland around 80 percent whereas in France more than 90 percent of all recreation travel is done by car.”
“Likewise, people flying to the mountains have a huge impact,” Bornstein added. “Furthermore, the transport of material to mountain huts by helicopter, as well as the construction and upkeep of infrastructure like cable cars, lifts or mountain huts have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions.”
For the next generation of mountaineers and trekkers to enjoy the Alps as much as the previous ones, Bornstein thinks local and national governments in alpine countries need to incentivize climate-friendly behavior.
“This should include the increased use of public transport to and in the mountains, a drastic reduction or the prohibition of heli-mountaineering, climate-friendly management of alpine accommodation, as well as encouraging meat-free nutrition in mountain huts and resorts,” he concluded.