Global warming forces Swiss ski resort to wrap glacier

Posted on May, 10 2005

WWF sees the wrapping of a glacier in central Switzerland to reduce the summer melt as a local, short-term solution to dealing with the effects of climate change.
Andermatt, Switzerland – The rapid retreat of the Gurschen Glacier in central Switzerland has forced a ski resort to wrap its shrinking ice cap under a giant fleece in an effort to reduce the summer melt.
As temperatures continue to rise in Alpine regions as a result of global warming, officials in the Gemsstock resort say that they have been forced to protect their natural assets with the insulating fleece.
Urs Elmiger, a board member of the Andermatt Gotthard Sportbahnen (AGS), the company that runs the cable car up to the glacier and is also paying for the ice-blanket, explained that in the last 15 years around 20m of the glacier has been lost through increased temperatures. 
“The shrinking of the glacier has meant we have had to build a ramp to get our guests from the top cable car station to the start of the ski slopes,” said Elmiger. “We hope that the insulating fleece will reduce the glacier melt  saving us money in rebuilding the ramp each season.” 

Tourism is the major business in Andermatt, with local hotels registering 80,000 overnight stays, and a total of a quarter of a million visitors passing through each year. 

“In winter this area is well known for the really challenging ski runs we offer visitors, and the glacier gives our visitors an extended ski season,” said Ester Imhasly, director of Andermatt Tourism.

“This in turn is important for businesses as they have grown to rely upon a longer winter tourist trade here than you’ll find in other resorts.” 

In front of the assembled collection of the world’s media a 3–4,000 square metre area was slowly and carefully covered by the white coloured blanket. Barely half a centimetre thick, the fleece eventually covered the stretch of glacier that runs from the cable car station to the start of the ski runs.
The "blanket" will be removed in the autumn when scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology look at how successful the experiment has been in slowing the glacier’s retreat. 
“The fleece is designed to protect the ice from ultraviolet rays," said Frank Gross, chief executive of the Swiss company Landolt that manufactures the material. 

"It’s a non-woven fabric that provides shade, protecting the ice from the rays of the sun, maybe not completely but the ice mass should remain pretty much in tact over the summer months.” 
Frank Gross expects the summer melt to be reduced by around 75 per cent with the polyester/polypropylene fleece in place. 
However, environmental groups, including WWF, say that the covering of the Gurschen glacier can be viewed as a short-term solution to a local problem, but it fails to deal with the longer term impacts of climate change. 

“We need to get to the cause of what’s happening to the glacier and that cause is global warming,” said Martin Hiller, spokesperson for climate change at WWF.

“To stop this we have to cut the emissions that cause global warming, we need to cut down on harmful pollutants, such as carbon dioxide.” 
Glaciers throughout the Alps are losing one percent of their mass every year and, even supposing no acceleration in that rate, will have all but disappeared by the end of the century. 

“We must increase the pressure on governments and business to force the power sector, which is the biggest producer of these emissions, to make a shift towards renewable energies before our glaciers disappear,” Hiller added.

Many in Andermatt are aware that covering the glacier can only be a stop-gap measure and that longer term measures have to be taken to deal with the impact of climate change.
“We have to take more care of our mountains and seas, this isn’t just a problem here in Andermatt or simply a problem for the tourism sector it’s for everyone here in Europe,” warned Adrian Brunner, a local resident.
“If people want to have the Alps as a natural resource we have to think about the solutions to climate change."

For more information:
Martin Hiller, Communications Manager
WWF Global Climate Change Programme
Tel: + 41 79 347 2256

Brian Thomson, Press Officer
WWF International
Tel: +41 22 364 9562
Workers fixing the fleece cover which is supposed to prevent the melting of Andermatt's Gurschen glacier.
© WWF / Mario Farinato
Martin Hiller, WWF Global Climate Change Programme, speaks with journalist about wrapping the glacier.
© WWF / Mario Farinato