Climate Witness: Marco Bomio, Switzerland
Grindelwald is a well-known destination that attracts many tourists. The resort first became famous for its unique location next to the glaciers. Up until about 20 years ago they were directly visible from the school windows. In those days the glacier tongues were but a half-hour hike away from the village. Today, that’s no longer the case. The climate change has had a profound impact on our region — the glaciers are melting. Today, I walk an hour and a half with my guests before we reach the glaciers’ edges.
Less and less ice
When I talk about local history in my classes, I illustrate this with historic photos. For example, I demonstrate how the glaciers still reached down to the valley floor in the middle of the 19th century. Back then Grindelwald exported the ice and shipped it to places as far away as Paris and Prague. My students are amazed when I show them documents like these.
Having worked as a mountain guide for almost 30 years, I have a strong sense of the glaciers’ recession. The transitions from ice to rock are becoming more difficult. Often, the ground in the melted area is gravelly and unstable. To make the crossing of these zones safe they must be secured with ladders or wire ropes so that the tourists have something to hold on to.
The rock begins to rock
The worst outcome of climate change has been the thawing of permafrost (permafrost is at or below the freezing point of water — 0°C or 32°F — for two or more years). Once the permafrost has melted away, the rock becomes brittle, while rock fall activity increases. Due to the severe recession of glaciers, the pressure of the ice against the rock also dwindles. The rock face too becomes increasingly brittle, which results in rock falls such as the one in 2006 on the Eiger’s east side.
Climate change cannot be held responsible for a single rock fall. But the frequency of such single events is definitely on the rise. Around Grindelwald some of the more problematic hiking trails have been secured by man-made tunnels.
Several well-known high-altitude routes such as the Jungfrau, Schreckhorn and Wetterhorn routes are already threatened. Here, the record warm summer of 2003 had a massive impact on the dwindling snow cover and led to a significant increase in rock fall activity.
I strongly believe that mountain guides choose their job because of their passion for the mountains and their love of nature and adventure. However, today mountain guides are often dispatched for rock stabilization or clearance projects. This has changed the job description as a whole. Last year, for example, Grindelwald Sports – Grindelwald’s mountaineering school – generated more income from rock clearance activities than from guided mountain tours.
At the beginning of the record warm summer of 2003, conditions were excellent for us as mountain guides. Peaks like the Eiger and the Wetterhorn could be climbed as early as mid-June, which in “normal” summers is not possible until one month later. But I would be more than happy to do without this benefit. Because in such warm weather the 0°C temperature limit moves up to over 4000m above sea level. This means rain instead of snow, excessively warm nights and rock falls.
I live in the Alps, Europe’s major water reservoir. The predicted drop in water levels due to the melting of glaciers worries me deeply. This will also affect electricity production. Switzerland continues to produce sixty per cent of its electricity from hydropower. My grandchildren will not know the same carefree water use we enjoy today.
Economically speaking, tourist destinations such as Grindelwald will need to look for new sources of income. The first steps in this direction have already been taken. Although laughed at initially, winter hiking is growing in popularity. Certainly, the path will lead away from classic, ski-based winter tourism, as artificial snow is only a short- and mid-term solution. In the winter of 2006/07 the production of artificial snow was impossible for a number of weeks because temperatures were too high.
I also see a future in other economic sectors such as education and training for youngsters and adults. Plus, a mounting number of companies, regardless of their geographic location, do business over the Internet. So why not establish a research institute for climate research in our valley? The subjects to study would be right at our doorstep.
Scientific reviewReviewed by: Dr Christophe Lambiel, Institute of Geography (IGUL) University of Lausanne, Switzerland
The story of Marco Bormio is consistent with the impact of climate change on the mountain environment. As everywhere in the Alps, the glaciers are dramatically retreating. This has not only an important impact on the landscape inheritance, but also in the slope stability. It is true that the rock fall that occurred in Eiger’s east flank in 2006 is related to the strong glacier retreat since the end of the Little Ice Age.
In the Grindelwald area, permafrost is predominantly found in the north-oriented rock faces of mountains such as Eiger. Increasing temperatures reduce the frozen rock stability, which can lead to rock fall activity. Such events were numerous during heat waves as that of summer 2003.
Concerning the human activity, it is true that the mountain guide activities have been diversified since a few years, but the first reason is the fact that the alpine territory is more and more occupied. The management of the increasing number of tourists in the Alps is a challenge for the future. New winter offers will have to be proposed to compensate the reduction of the snow cover at mid-altitude.
- World glacier monitoring service: http://www.geo.unizh.ch/wgms/
- Swiss glacier monitoring network: http://glaciology.ethz.ch/messnetz/?locale=en
- Permafrost monitoring Switzerland: www.permos.ch