If the eternal ice melts, mighty summits will teeter

The Alps are mighty and magnificent. Or are they mighty and terrifying because they are beginning to crumble and tumble down into the valleys below? This question has been raised by the dramatic events of summer 2017 in the Swiss mountains. This has highlighted the impact rising temperatures are having on the Alps.

Moosfluh provides a wonderful view of the Aletsch glacier. However, the glacier is no longer a safe place for hiking as it is melting away.

Geologist Hugo Raetzo warns: “Temperatures in the Alps have risen at twice the rate of the global average since the late 19th century.”

Bondo residents survey the destruction caused by the avalanche of mud, debris and scree on 23 August. Photos: Keystone

There was no indication that anything out of the ordinary would happen in the Grisons mountains on 23 August 2017. It was a bright summer’s day. But then at 9.30 a.m., three million cubic metres of rock came loose on the 3,369-metre-high Piz Cengalo. The mass of rock crashed into the valley below and fragmented. The impact pulverised a 10 to 15-metre-thick glacial sheet lying in the rockfall’s path. The rubble combined with the loose rock saturated with melt water at the bottom of the mountain. Shortly afterwards a torrent of mud and debris rolled down the mountain, heavy and powerful enough to push huge lumps of rock down into the valley too. “Rolled down” is not really an accurate description. The mudslide travelled at up to 40 kilometres an hour towards the village of Bondo five kilometres away and collided with part of it.

The incident claimed the lives of eight hikers whose bodies have still not been found. As Piz Cengalo is under observation due to previous rockfalls and a warning system has been installed high above the village, nobody in Bondo itself was hurt. The warning system raised the alarm, giving them time to reach safety from the mudslides and falling debris.

Just a week later, another large section of rock came away from Piz Cengalo during a night-time storm. Another mudslide hurtled down into the valley. There was a third landslide on 15 September. Several hundred thousand cubic metres of rock crashed down the mountainside for over two hours. The “Bondarini”, as the residents of Bondo are known, are aware that another one and a half million cubic metres of rock are moving on Piz Cengalo.

First the mountain, then the glacier…

A change of location – the Trift glacier on the 4,000-metre-high Weissmies normally moves down the valley at a rate of around 15 centimetres a day. The Bondo landslide was still making the headlines when the movement of the Trift glacier’s permanently monitored ice sheets began gathering pace. The speed of movement increased to two and then four metres a day. That is a staggering rate for glaciers. Experts and authorities raised the alarm on 9 September and requested 220 residents of Saas Grund to leave their homes. The evacuation was completed by 6 p.m. and the hiking area was cordoned off. These steps did not come a moment too soon. In the early hours of the morning on the following day, the tip of the glacier under observation broke into pieces, slid over the steep rock face and fragmented into ice granulate upon impact. Nobody was hurt.

…and finally an entire mountainside

Another change of location – Moosfluh at an altitude of 2,234 metres, close to Bettmeralp, provides wonderful panoramic views of the Aletsch glacier. However, the mountain slope abutting the glacier is no longer a safe place for hiking. Warning signs prohibit access by mountain climbers because “people can disappear into the large holes, such as glacial crevasses, on the hiking route”, warns the safety officer responsible for the area. His warning does not appear exaggerated. Around 160 million cubic metres of rock are moving here. It is the largest movement of rock in Switzerland and is very rapid at times. Whereas the Moosfluh moved by a few millimetres a year on average in previous millennia, this suddenly increased to 30 metres in 2016. Such astonishing rates have not been recorded anywhere else in the Alps. Deep fissures and metre-wide crevices in the terrain in places suggest that a far larger mass could plunge into the valley here than in the Bondo landslide.

Cengalo, the Trift glacier and Moosfluh – these three locations raise the question as to whether significant climate change lies behind the extensive degeneration and whether, as a consequence, the Alps will no longer be seen as mighty and magnificent but instead as a mighty and terrifyingplace to visit.

“We are experiencing rising temperatures”

Geologist Hugo Raetzo from the Hazard Prevention Division of the Federal Office for the Environment points out the obvious first of all: “We are experiencing rising temperatures in the high mountain regions.” Temperatures in the Alps have risen at twice the rate of the global average since the late 19th century. The increase in temperature has also become more acute in the mountains in recent decades. This rise in temperature is obviously impacting on the glaciers and the permanently frozen and therefore stabilising substrate, known as permafrost, explains Raetzo. In addition to the general warming, which is causing the permafrost to thaw, the very hot summers of recent times are also a factor, indicates the natural scientist. Hot summers could become the “trigger point” for rockfalls. Rockfalls and landslides were more frequent in the summers of 2003 and 2015 when higher than average temperatures were recorded.

The Piz Cengalo is one of the mountains lying in the permafrost zone. Is it a typical example of a mountain that begins to disintegrate when it gets too hot in the mountains? Raetzo explains that it is not quite that simple. The correlations are often much more complex, and developments over millennia are a major factor. However, the Swiss Permafrost Monitoring Network reveals just how much the temperature has risen in the depths of the ground. The Corvatsch measurement station, for example, shows that the temperature at a depth of 10 metres is a degree higher today than it was 30 years ago. Temperatures are also rising at a depth of 20 metres, a level where seasonal fluctuations have had little effect in the past. Raetzo remarks: “It is certainly not the case that every mountain is disintegrating.” But the geological structure increases the risk of landslide. This is illustrated by a simple example. If the substrate defrosts, a certain gradient is required before rock slides.

Fissures and crevices full of water

The Piz Cengalo is certainly steep. However, no definitive causal analysis of this specific case has yet been produced. The “Bondarini” are therefore left to speculate on the factors behind the Piz Cengalo landslide. Siffredo Negrini, a mountain guide, has tried to fathom out what happened. He has long avoided the mountain. He explains why: “Ice and snow melt quickly there, and water fills the fissures and crevices. It then freezes, cracking the rock.” The recent incident aside, Raetzo points to a general lesson that must be learned on the Swiss mountains: “The permafrost is being warmed and the glaciers are receding – warm melt water, which is extremely prevalent in summer, is penetrating to great depths. This changes the situation and potentially also the stability of the terrain.”

The abundance of melt water has also impacted on the Trift glacier. Raetzo explains that some of the melt water reaches the bottom of the glacier in hot summers, heating the very spot where the glacier is embedded into the rock – or at least should be. Experts unanimously agree that the glacial ice falls of 9 September were the result of high summer temperatures. Martin Funk, a glaciologist at the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, comments: “Such an incident can only take place in summer.” The climate is therefore having a direct impact on the glacier.

Most glaciers in the Alps are set to disappear by the end of the century, apart from a few at high altitude. Switzerland must therefore prepare itself for significant change. The first lesson for the lay person is that if the glaciers melt, their stabilising force is also lost. The entire tip of the Trift glacier broke off because there was nothing supporting it. The deeper sections of the glacier used to support the steep part of the Trift glacier, but they have now melted away.

The mountainside has no support

This process of change is accelerating as support structures disappear. Moosfluh provides a good example of this phenomenon. Here the Aletsch glacier is supported – or at least was – by the abutting mountainside. The Aletsch glacier has receded by around three kilometres in length since 1850 and 400 metres in height based on the tip today. Its dwindling dimensions mean the ice is no longer exerting pressure on the slopes. The original pressure of 35 bar “is no longer being applied”, according to Raetzo, which clearly explains the movement of the Moosfluh.

Despite the principle that “melting glaciers mean the mountains lose a support structure”, the consequences are not generally as dramatic as on the edge of the Aletsch glacier. Raetzo explains that the right “geological structure” also has to exist in the first place: Events far back in the Earth’s history have probably caused “weakspots and clasts in the bedrock” on the mountain. The underground processes of fragmentation – which mean we are now seeing extremely dynamic geomechanical interaction – were therefore set in motion much earlier. Put simply, if the “eternal ice” is supporting a mountain that is already fragile, the melting of the glacier proves fatal.

After the dramatic events of summer 2017 in the mountains, one thing is clear – neither the landslide on the Piz Cengalo nor the break-up of the Trift glacier came as a complete surprise nor did they find Switzerland unprepared. Bondo constructed a protective wall several years ago to act as a collection basin for impending mudslides, which probably prevented the village from being destroyed. The Trift glacier has been under observation for years, along with the Bis glacier in Mattertal. At Moosfluh too the tiniest shift does not escape the attention of the experts because the mountain is being monitored. Radar systems, GPS, optical evaluation procedures and other measuring systems are deployed. It appears Switzerland is extremely well equipped in terms of technology for monitoring danger. Raetzo backs this up: “We have much accurate information on the movements in the areas under observation and are working at a high standard technically.” National and cantonal environmental agencies and universities are collaborating on the trialling of GPS-based observation networks in pilot areas in Upper Valais. The GPS sensors deployed in unstable zones provide real-time data on movements. “The early warning systems we are working with are of a very high standard by international comparison,” says Raetzo. But he warns against bullishness: “We’ll never have control over nature despite all the technology at our disposal – not today nor in the future.”

Federal Councillor Doris Leuthard underlined the message even more clearly in comments captured by TV cameras in Bondo: “We will continue to experience such incidents. Melting permafrost, mudslides and climate change are a reality, even if some people still refuse to believe it.”

Tourism – part of the Alps will have to survive without snow

Comments (11)
  • Danielle Rodriguez
    Danielle Rodriguez at 21.11.2017
    Il faut faire parvenir ça au président actuel des USA qui ne croit pas au changement climatique! Les américains qui polluent plus que tout le monde et qui ne veulent rien payé ni reconnaître.c'est un monde tout de même d'être aussi bouche!
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  • Dulce Palma Fernandes
    Dulce Palma Fernandes at 22.11.2017
    Très bon article. Merci pour toutes ces informations très importantes pour l'avenir de notre pays et de nos merveilleux paysages.
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  • Pletts
    Pletts at 22.11.2017
    Un article qui devrait être lu par la population américaine et tous ses politiciens.
    La réalité de ce phénomène fait trés peur.
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  • Wessel
    Wessel at 23.11.2017
    Frightening. The world is on a general unstopable collision course if we continue to burn our future. The Netherlands and many other countries will disappear causing huge life losses through climate changes.
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  • Margret Allen
    Margret Allen at 27.11.2017
    I think Danielle Rodriguez and Pletts may be very wrong. It is arrogant to think that we little humans can affect the course of the universe. We can't even steer our own little world. Only 10,000 years ago my city was at the bottom of the Champlain Sea with about 150 meters of water above us. What happened? CLIMATE CHANGE happened, as it has since time immemorial. In the meantime, a lot of people make a lot of money selling gullible, and unquestioning innocents false environmental goods and ideas, and a lot of politicians frighten us into submission and increased environmental taxes. NOBODY tells us what happens if we do what they want us to do and buy in ten, 100, 1000, or 10,000 years, because they just don't know, do they? It's easy and facile to jump on the bandwagen and decry President Trump. But what if he is as right as he was with his statement on Sweden, so hotly denied and then proven right? I remember being taken to the Aaregletscher as a highschool student to see how quickly it melted. The professor explained to us (and that is decades ago) that the mountains around us would likely crumble once the support structure of the glaciers and underlying permafrost was gone, but that was the inevitable consequence of the interglacial period. He told us that one day, the gletscher may begin to grow again and that we would then know that we were heading into a new ice age.
    Let me quote from pure science, the same my good Swiss professor told us in highschool:
    The Ice Ages began 2.4 million years ago and lasted until 11,500 years ago. During this time, the earth’s climate repeatedly changed between very cold periods, during which glaciers covered large parts of the world (see map below), and very warm periods during which many of the glaciers melted. The cold periods are called glacials (ice covering) and the warm periods are called interglacials.
    maps showing ice coverage during Ice Age and today

    There were at least 17 cycles between glacial and interglacial periods. The glacial periods lasted longer than the interglacial periods. The last glacial period began about 100,000 years ago and lasted until 25,000 years ago. Today we are in a warm interglacial period.

    How do we know?

    A moraine

    When a glacier (or ice sheet) grows and moves across the landscape, it pushes rocks and sediments. When the glacier melts, it leaves piles of these rocks behind. The rock piles are called moraines. These moraines provide evidence that glaciers once covered large parts of the world.

    Scientists also study the chemicals in ice cores from Greenland and rock deposits from the ocean floor. Those chemicals indicate what the climate was like when the ice or rocks were formed.

    There may be very little we can do about climate change, although we can try, but please, let us demand to know what each new theory and environmental good we are browbeaten into accepting will effect tomorrow in 10 years, in 100 years, in 1,000 years. And if we don't get a good response, then let us not do it. President Trump may just be right in challenging false information.
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    • Julie Odermatt
      Julie Odermatt at 09.12.2017
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    • Moritz
      Moritz at 01.02.2018
      It was scientists who discovered and proved what you are saying and many people understand that climate under goes cycles over the millennia but what many scientists now believe with more detailed data and better techniques is that the earth's system behaves in complex and often counterintuitive ways.
      But the fundamental principles of it are quite simple: its component parts interact with each other such that, over time, the amount of energy leaving the planet is equal to the amount entering it from the Sun. The interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans, and the ice on land and sea drive the natural variability of the climate. The system is very responsive. Even a small change in one component can trigger a chain of consequences in the other parts. When such changes alter the energy balance, the effects are felt throughout the entire system, while it adjusts to reach a new balance. Man's industrial contribution to the system mean CO2 and methane gases are being released into the system at an extraordinary rate, creating an imbalance that will have catastrophic effects on humanity. The US is about to produce record amounts of oil through shale exploitation, this will be a short term financial gain at a much bigger human cost down the line but rest assured whatever we do the planet will continue exist.
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  • Helen Meier
    Helen Meier at 29.11.2017
    Sehr geehrte Frau Margret Allen, Sie haben ihrem Lehrer gut zugehört: Gletscher schrumpfen und wachsen wieder. Für die Alpen und den von Ihnen erwähnten Aaregletscher stimmte das - bis jetzt. Neu ist, dass die Gletscher ganz verschwinden: Es bleibt nichts übrig, das wachsen könnte. Für unser Land heisst das, dass die Veränderungen sehr bedeutend sein können. Die Gletscher sind Teil unseres Wassersystems. Sind sie weg, verändert sich Flora, Fauna und das lokale Klima. Statt das «Wasserschloss Europas» mit ständig fliessenden Strömen droht ein Zustand mit Fluten und Trockenheiten. Ich mag nicht kommentieren, ob Mr Trump dazu richtig oder falsch denkt. Mich interessiert eher, ob es richtig ist, wenn Sie und ich denken, dass man nichts für oder gegen den Klimakollaps tun kann. Ich meinerseits hoffe darauf, dass möglichst viele es so sehr probieren, wie sie nur können. Alles andere ist für mich ein schwer verständlicher Fatalismus.
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    • Ernst  Ruetimann , Trang
      Ernst Ruetimann , Trang at 19.12.2017
      Gluechlicherweise werde ich ( 71 ) das nicht mehr erleben muessen. Was mich bedauert sind die Kinder und Kindeskinder, welche in eine ungewisse Zukunft wachsen. Wenn dann die Berge zu Tal gekommen sind, und " freie Sicht auf das Mittelmeer " herrscht, wird sich wieder eine neue Klimawandlung anbahnen wie seit Tausenden von Jahren. Und dann vielleicht ohne die Spezies Mensch, welche sich mittlerweile wohl eleminiert haben duerfte.
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  • Nicolas
    Nicolas at 05.12.2017
    Hello Margret,
    President Trump (seems you too) are part of very few % of our planet population still thinking that human activity during last 100 years has no real impact on nature and global warming. We are not talking about 10,000 years period, but only one century. Please think about the other population which will be affected by your new US president deny, and don't think only about your personal wallet.
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  • Nickolas Waser
    Nickolas Waser at 27.02.2018
    Is climate change our responsibility? Absolutely.

    It was the Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz who in the 1830s first deduced from his research in the Alps that Earth’s climate has changed over geological ages. It seems surprising that this understanding can lead to complacency: “Climate change has always happened, so why worry?” As my fellow Swiss-American Margaret Allen shows, this is one of a potpourri of arguments that skeptics put forth to deflect the reality. For those willing to acknowledge the change that is happening all around us—and accept the chemistry and physics and computer modeling that followed Agassiz—there is no doubt that humans are causing global warming at an unprecedented speed, that this is very bad news, and that we could take steps to lessen the consequences if humanity would act in concerted fashion. This is not a political issue, as the letter writer implies, and "let's do nothing" is not an appropriate response.
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