The Victorian writer and mountaineer Leslie Stephen – the father of Virginia Woolf – called the Alps “the playground of Europe”. And so they have been, in winter and summer alike, for many generations. But with excessive warming now placing some of the Alps’ most iconic summits out of bounds, for how much longer can the freedom of Europe’s playground continue?
The basic problem is the warming of the Alps. Snowfall this past winter – especially in the southern Alps – was down by two-thirds from what was once considered normal. The loss of snowmelt is a direct cause of this summer’s brutal drought in the Po valley. Last month, Swiss scientists found that weather balloons were having to rise to 5,184 metres (over 17,000ft), well above the very highest peaks, before they finally reached freezing point.
The central Alps are badly affected too. This year, the snow had all gone by the start of July, at least a month earlier than the previous record. There is no snow on the now closed Matterhorn summit. Meanwhile, the rapid melting of the Theodul glacier nearby has meant that the Italian-Swiss border itself, which traditionally follows the drainage divide between north and south, has had to be shifted significantly in Italy’s direction as the glacier has shrunk.
Higher temperatures mean less ice, including less permafrost; less ice means more rockfalls; and more rockfalls mean more fatalities. The worst accident this summer has been on the Marmolada glacier on the northern slopes of the highest peak in the Italian Dolomites. Eleven climbers were killed when a block of ice and rock plummeted down the glacier without warning. The Marmolada has lost 80% of its volume since 1950, and may disappear altogether in another 15 years. Other Alpine glaciers face similar fates, with widening crevasses causing further dangers.
Half of all mountaineering accidents in France occur on the highest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc. So dangerous has the main route from Chamonix up Mont Blanc become that in June many local guides suspended all ascents after another rockfall fatality. Traditionally, Alpine climbers have set off in the early hours to ensure that conditions are frozen and firm. That is now frequently impossible because temperatures are too high, adding to the danger.
The other problem is the attrition of mass tourism in this increasingly fragile environment. Three years ago, many were shocked by pictures from the Himalayas of climbers queueing to ascend the final ridge of Mount Everest. Similar scenes have long been familiar in the Alps too.
Around alps/problems/tourism/” title=”” data-link-name=”in body link”>120 million tourists visit the Alps in a typical year. Most visitors stay in the valleys and hotel complexes. Many others choose a widely proliferating variety of outdoor activities. One Chamonix guide accuses tourists of climbing Mont Blanc simply for a selfie on the summit. In 2019, a ban had to be imposed on paragliders landing there.
In the Alps, the 21st century’s increasingly head-on collision between industrial tourism and the climate crisis is destroying some of the very environments that have attracted so many to the high mountains in the first place, as well as generating ever larger numbers of accidents. To close the playground of Europe would be unenforceable and unfair, as well as economically devastating. But without collective self-denial and behaviour change, an already bad situation will simply get worse.
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