The Guardian’s point of view on the warming of the Alps: a challenge for tourism

The Guardian’s point of view on the warming of the Alps: a challenge for tourism

The Guardian’s point of view on the warming of the Alps: a challenge for tourism

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Victorian writer and mountaineer Leslie Stephen – Virginia Woolf’s father – called the Alps “Europe’s playground”. And so they have been, in winter as in summer, for many generations. But with excessive warming now pushing some of the Alps’ most iconic peaks out of bounds, how long can the freedom of Europe’s playground continue?

The underlying problem is the warming of the Alps. Snowfall last winter, especially in the southern Alps, fell by two-thirds of what was once considered normal. The loss of melted snow is a direct cause of this summer’s brutal drought in the Po Valley. Last month, Swiss scientists found that the weather balloons had to climb 5,184 meters (over 17,000 feet), well above the highest peaks, before finally reaching freezing point.

The central Alps are also severely affected. This year the snow was gone in early July, at least a month before the previous record. There is no snow on the now closed summit of the Matterhorn. Meanwhile, the rapid melting of the nearby Theodul glacier meant that the Italian-Swiss border itself, which traditionally follows the drainage gap between north and south, had to be significantly shifted in the direction of Italy as the glacier moved reduced.

Higher temperatures mean less ice, including less permafrost; less ice means more landslides; and more landslides mean more casualties. The worst accident of this summer was on the Marmolada glacier, on the northern slopes of the highest peak of the Italian Dolomites. Eleven climbers were killed when a block of ice and rock fell from the glacier without warning. The Marmolada has lost 80% of its volume since 1950 and could completely disappear in another 15 years. Other alpine glaciers face similar fates, with widened crevasses causing further dangers.

Half of all mountaineering accidents in France occur on the highest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc. The main route from Chamonix to Mont Blanc became so dangerous that in June many local guides suspended all ascents after another rockfall fatality. Traditionally, climbers have set off early in the morning to make sure conditions are icy and solid. This is often impossible because the temperatures are too high, increasing the danger.

The other problem is the friction of mass tourism in this increasingly fragile environment. Three years ago, many were shocked by the Himalayan images of climbers lining up to climb Everest’s final ridge. Similar scenes have long been familiar in the Alps as well.

Around 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. A Chamonix guide accuses tourists of climbing Mont Blanc simply for a selfie at the summit. In 2019, a ban was imposed on paragliders landing there.

In the Alps, the increasingly head-on clash of the 21st century between industrial tourism and the climate crisis is destroying some of the same environments that attracted so many to the high mountains in the first place, as well as generating more and more accidents. Closing the playground of Europe would be inapplicable and unfair, as well as economically devastating. But without collective self-denial and behavior change, an already bad situation will simply get worse.

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