As Alps Warm, Ice Melts and Mountains Crumble

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Johann Kaufmann looks up a the Eiger mountain. i

Johann Kaufmann looks up at the west face of the Eiger, a route that's rarely used to summit anymore since the lack of snow and ice has led to too many dangerously loose rocks. Emily Harris, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Emily Harris, NPR
Johann Kaufmann looks up a the Eiger mountain.

Johann Kaufmann looks up at the west face of the Eiger, a route that's rarely used to summit anymore since the lack of snow and ice has led to too many dangerously loose rocks.

Emily Harris, NPR

How Warming Leads to Shifting Mountains

  

Geologists say the rockslides around the Grindelwald glacier are a good illustration of how global warming leads to significant shifts in mountain landscapes.

  

Read more

A hut with one corner hanging off the edge of a cliff. i

This hut collapsed in 2005, when the earth underneath it crumbled due to glacial retreat. Hans Rudolf Keusen, GEOTEST AG hide caption

itoggle caption Hans Rudolf Keusen, GEOTEST AG
A hut with one corner hanging off the edge of a cliff.

This hut collapsed in 2005, when the earth underneath it crumbled due to glacial retreat.

Hans Rudolf Keusen, GEOTEST AG
Masses of rock falling from the Eiger mountain. i

On July 13, 2006, masses of rock fell down from Eiger, near Grindelwald. The event came after days of warnings from scientists regarding rock loosened by melting glacial ice. AP Photo/Keystone/ Bruno Petroni hide caption

itoggle caption AP Photo/Keystone/ Bruno Petroni
Masses of rock falling from the Eiger mountain.

On July 13, 2006, masses of rock fell down from Eiger, near Grindelwald. The event came after days of warnings from scientists regarding rock loosened by melting glacial ice.

AP Photo/Keystone/ Bruno Petroni
A lake that forms below the melting glacier. i

A lake periodically forms below the melting Lower Grindelwald glacier, then drains itself suddenly through the rocks into a runoff stream. Hans Rudolf Keusen, GEOTEST AG hide caption

itoggle caption Hans Rudolf Keusen, GEOTEST AG
A lake that forms below the melting glacier.

A lake periodically forms below the melting Lower Grindelwald glacier, then drains itself suddenly through the rocks into a runoff stream.

Hans Rudolf Keusen, GEOTEST AG
A river flows towards a village at the base of the mountains. i

The melting glacier feeds into this river. A possible flood is the most worrisome climate change scenario for local officials. Emily Harris, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Emily Harris, NPR
A river flows towards a village at the base of the mountains.

The melting glacier feeds into this river. A possible flood is the most worrisome climate change scenario for local officials.

Emily Harris, NPR

As temperatures around the globe rise, the world's mountains are changing. In the Alps, retreating glaciers, more landslides and rockfalls are causing shifts not only in the physical environment, but in jobs, town budgets, and attitudes.

Johann Kaufmann is a climbing guide, born and raised in Grindelwald, a village tucked below the melting glaciers of Switzerland's central Alps. Trekking along the west edge of the Eiger, one of the most famous mountains in Switzerland, Kaufmann spots a band of snow chicks, flecked brown now in the summer to blend in with the rocks.

Although the summit looms above, few people head this way to the top of the Eiger anymore. There are too many loose rocks – and not enough ice or snow to hold them in place. Just around a jagged corner is the Eiger's famous and challenging north face. Kaufman says it's best to climb the north face in the winter now, when more snow and ice stabilize the route. He takes these changes in stride.

"It's not that dangerous like you hear sometimes," he says. "We can live with it but it's changing, that's a fact."

About half of Kaufman's work now comes not from climbing but from "cleaning" slopes – deliberately knocking down loose rocks that otherwise might crash onto streets or trails. It's been a gradual shift in business over the past decade. But last summer, Grindelwald experienced climate change like time lapse photography.

Dramatic Change

Massive rockfalls off the east flank of the Eiger brought flocks of TV reporters to try to capture it on film. One day nearly half a million cubic meters of rock – that's equivalent to about a half a million refrigerators - dropped all at once into the canyon below. Dust thickened the normally clear alpine village air. Tourism increased dramatically as people crowded a mountain hut opposite the fall to take a look. Even though hut owner Hansrudi Baeregg had never seen any rockfall this big, he says the attention became overkill.

"My boys counted the helicopter coming in 22 times in one day with different people," he says. "You know, it's a laughably small part of the Eiger that fell down."

Sheep graze the meadow behind his restaurant, and above the ruins of another hut that fell into the canyon as a glacier retreated. Now, as that glacier continues to melt, scientists are watching a basin that's developed at the bottom of the glacier. Geologist Hans Rudolf Keusen says the lake that sometimes fills the basin is not a danger at the moment.

"But in the future we expect that this basin could get volume of about 8-10 million cubic meters," Keusen says. "And if such a basin is filled with water that could be a big problem."

The current, small lake periodically disappears, draining suddenly through its unstable rock bed into a stream fed by other glacial runoff. Geologists worry that if the lake gets bigger, floods could swamp the main tourist tram up the mountain, a shopping center, and potentially, towns downstream.

Living in a Changing Landscape

Officials have installed an alarm system that gives a half an hour warning if water rises to a dangerous level. But they haven't practiced evacuations. Director of local emergency services Kurt Amacher says that's tricky in a tourist town.

"The locals, they would get it right away, but the guests... then it gets difficult, then it gets a little complicated," Amacher explains. "They'll suddenly feel unsafe and we absolutely don't want to do that."

There is talk of installing a wall in the canyon, or a tunnel, something hidden from view, that could control the water flow. Grindelwald's mayor, Dres Studer, thinks these are crazy ideas.

"These are all foolish things to do. It costs a hell of a lot of money and it doesn't really help. Just let the nature as it is," Studer says. "If there is a rock somewhere falling down, you don't make a scene and cry. It's just normal."

That includes global warming, a trend Studer is skeptical can be stopped in time to affect the Alps.

How Warming Leads to Shifting Mountains

Illustration of how a melting glacier caused a massive rockslide. i

This diagram illustrates how the melting of the Grindelwald glacier led to a massive rockslide in 2006. Hans Rudolf Keusen, GEOTEST AG hide caption

itoggle caption Hans Rudolf Keusen, GEOTEST AG
Illustration of how a melting glacier caused a massive rockslide.

This diagram illustrates how the melting of the Grindelwald glacier led to a massive rockslide in 2006.

Hans Rudolf Keusen, GEOTEST AG

Geologists say the rockslides around the Grindelwald glacier are a good illustration of how global warming leads to significant shifts in mountain landscapes.

This view is drawn from the perspective of someone standing on the glacier. The Eiger Mountain is on the left of the sketch (W) and the Mettenberg on the right (E). Slow glacial melt over many years meant the sides of the canyon the glacier once filled lost support. The rock face on the west side of the canyon was normally additionally stabilized by ice that filled the natural small cracks in the rock.

But as that ice has melted, water accumulated in the cracks, creating immense pressure. Glaciologist Hans Rudolf Kreusen says a thin column of water ten meters high can produce about one ton of pressure per square centimeter. Last summer, about a half a million cubic meters broke off from the rock face all at once and fell into the canyon below. About two million cubic meters is still sliding slowly down the rock, and is expected to fall in the future.

On the east side of the canyon, the retreating glacier left behind moraine, the jumble of unconsolidated rock at every glacier's edge. For years the moraine was stable enough to support a hiking trail and small tourist hut, but in 2005 the moraine gave way and half the hut broke off over the canyon. Why then? Geologists suspect that 'dead ice' may have played a role in that slide. Dead ice refers to ice that once was connected to a glacier, but was left stranded as the glacier retreated. It usually remains deep in the earth, and in this case may have finally warmed enough that by 2005 could no longer support the ground where the hut stood.

A new hut, the Bäregg, opened in 2006, and was mobbed with tourists wanting to see massive rocks fall from the canyon's opposite wall.

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