Swiss Town Guards Itself Against Climate Hazard In Switzerland, one town saw global warming coming and built a dam to stop it. The Swiss resort of Pontresina, near the Italian border, is 5,900 feet above sea level, which is on the high end — even in Switzerland. But higher still, right above the town, is a mass of warming permafrost.
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Swiss Town Guards Itself Against Climate Hazard

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Swiss Town Guards Itself Against Climate Hazard

Swiss Town Guards Itself Against Climate Hazard

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Time now for our Climate Connections, our yearlong series with National Geographic. This month we're focusing on Europe. And today, we travel to Switzerland where one town saw global warming coming and built a dam to stop it. Well, to hold on some of its dangerous effects, anyway.

NPR's Emily Harris visited Pontresina, a resort in a mountain valley near the Italian border.

EMILY HARRIS: The Swiss resort of Pontresina is 5,900 feet above sea level, on the high end, even in Switzerland. But higher still, right above the town, is a mass of warming permafrost.

Permafrost expert Felix Keller estimates that ice in the Earth is holding together enough rock and debris to fill about 100 houses.

Dr. FELIX KELLER (Permafrost Expert, Engadine Academy): When the permafrost melts in the debris-covered areas, at first moment, nothing happens. But by the next strong rainfall, the danger of debris flow is much higher.

(Soundbite of bells tolling)

HARRIS: Right down the mountainside from the permafrost, there's a 17th-century church, as well as the town's leading hotels, and a school. But in between, there's a 4-year-old dam.

It's a very short drive from the town to the dam, where former community president Eugen Peters shows off the structure's two massive earth-and-stone walls. They're designed to let water through but stop everything else.

How strong are these? How much can they stop?

Mr. EUGEN PETERS (Former Community President, Pontresina): One hundred thousand meter cubic stone material and 250,000 cubic meter snow can be stopped here. That's enough.

HARRIS: No one knows when, or if, the $6.5 million dam will be tested by a landslide. But resident Martin Schmutz calls it an insurance policy for the town.

Mr. MARTIN SCHMUTZ: It may be - can be happens, maybe never. It can be soon. We had some heavy rains in other places in Switzerland.

HARRIS: Flooding and an increasing number of rock falls - some deadly — have heightened awareness in Switzerland about the natural hazards this country faces as the earth warms. Pontresina is often described as the first town, in this well-organized country, to do something proactive to protect itself against the effects of climate change.

But the dam wasn't an easy sell. Some residents doubted there was really permafrost uphill from them. Others doubted it would melt. The number of trees chopped down to make way for the dam was controversial. And then there was the question of what to tell the tourists.

HARRIS: Alexander Pampel's family manages the Sporthotel, directly below the dam.

Mr. ALEXANDER PAMPEL (Hotel Manager, Sporthotel): After the construction, many people asked why did they do that, and is it because before it was not safe? Or they had many questions but now nobody asks anymore.

HARRIS: A brochure published for visitors says a feeling of security is essential for peace of mind, and it touts the dam as evidence the resort cares about protecting its guests. And although it increasingly blends into the landscape, the dam has been incorporated into a tourist attraction.

A mountain railway carries visitors to 8,000 feet, the start of Pontresina's climate change trail. Signs along the walk explain the basics of the local geology and global warming. The trail passes through steep slopes littered with avalanche fences, some hewn by hand from stone 100 years ago.

Felix Keller says a lot of time and money was spent here on avalanche protection before global warming became a problem.

Mr. KELLER: The authorities of Pontresina and also the population, due to the avalanches — snow avalanches — they are used to act. They know what they have to do.

HARRIS: Towns in this valley are worried the effects of global warming could slow tourism, so they are actively trying to promote themselves as doing something to fight climate change. The neighboring luxury resort of St. Moritz has put together a clean energy tour, showing off solar panels on ski lifts and a hotel heated using water from a freezing cold lake.

Tourism Board President Hans Peter Danuser says this is all part of the resort's responsibility.

Dr. HANS-PETER DANUSER (CEO/Managing Director, St. Moritz Tourist Board): St. Moritz is used to set trends. The Range Rover was launched here worldwide, the Audi Quatro, they launched here worldwide. So, we also want to launch ecological trends. It means alternatives are chic and sexy.

HARRIS: After all, he says, the natural environment is ultimately all the area has to sell.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Pontresina.

SIEGEL: And you can take a virtual tour of the effects of climate change in the Pontresina area at npr.org.

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