Alps in danger of tumbling down


Permafrost is melting as the planet heats up, leaving the mountain range vulnerable to more landslides

By Alison Langley in Müren, Switzerland, and Geoffrey Lean

Sunday, 18 March 2001

Daniel Vonder Muehll regularly rides up the Schilthorn cable car to visit two pipes sticking out of the snow overlooking one of the most breathtaking views in the world.

Daniel Vonder Muehll regularly rides up the Schilthorn cable car to visit two pipes sticking out of the snow overlooking one of the most breathtaking views in the world.

Unknown to the skiers and snowboarders who whip by him, Mr Vonder Muehll takes the temperature of the ice underneath. He has discovered that the mountain is sick.

Here, where the British helped the Swiss to invent skiing as a sport, the permanently frozen ice cementing the jointed bedrock of the mountain is melting. Landslides are becoming common in the Alps as whole sections threaten to slide down into the valleys below, causing death, destruction and taking with them the future of the hugely lucrative Alpine skiing and tourism industry.

Mountain-top restaurants and cable cars are already starting to shift on their foundations. The director of one cable car alone, the popular Schilthorn, says that his firm spends 7m Swiss francs (£2.9m) every year to maintain its stability.

A new study by Swiss and British scientists has found that the permafrost has warmed up by one degree centigrade over the past 15 years at their three monitoring stations in the Alps: near Zermatt, St Moritz and at the Schilthorn, in the Berner Oberland, where James Bond skied in the film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

The research – Europe’s first in-depth study of the fate of the permafrost – is the latest evidence of rapid and widespread thawing around the world as global warming takes hold.

Ski instructors and mountain guides in the Alps are already familiar with the impact of climate change. To the irritation of skiers and ice climbers, the once reliable Christmas snowfall has shifted into early January and snowfalls have become unpredictable, leaving skiing and climbing conditions increasingly dangerous.

Snow now falls in heavy bouts and is interspersed with unpredictable cycles of hot and freezing weather, leading to unstable snow fields, dangerous ice climbs, patchy ski runs and violent avalanches.

Vanessa Haimes of the Ski Club of Great Britain said the skiing industry is concerned about the effect climate changes might have on business in the long term. Deirdre Rowe, head of Optimum Ski, a chalet ski firm based near Les Arcs in France, said locals had noticed a steady rise in climate at the resort in recent years.

Two years ago, a devastating avalanche in the Chamonix valley reduced chalets to matchwood, underlining the growing threat to property and the safety of holiday-makers.

The famed glaciers around Chamonix have visibly shrunk. Where Victorian tourists were able to step directly on to the Glace de Mer in the Vallée Blanche, modern tourists have to reach the glacier by cable car.

The problem is especially acute in Switzerland because it has the steepist and most populated mountains in Europe. “We realise there is a serious issue here,” said Vonder Muehll, a geophysicist who heads the Swiss side of a European-wide study.

In just one year, scientists believe, warming permafrost caused more than 250 landslides, killing eight people and causing damage worth Sfr1.3bn (£555m). They predict that the toll will rise as the climate change increases.

Countless restaurants and hotels and 288 ski lifts are built into the permafrost. Scientists already have identified two ski lifts with structural problems and some buildings in which cracks were forming due to shifting of the ground.

“It is a very, very sensitive topic for Switzerland, especially because tourism is so important for its economy,” said Stephan Gruber, a scientist at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich.

The question in scientists’ minds is no longer whether it happens, but where, when and what the damage will be. The problem is so acute that the geophysicists held a meeting last year with the cable car operators who are located in permafrost areas. All of them are privately owned.

“Cable car operators don’t want to tell us when they notice a problem,” said Felix Keller, a geographer and glacierologist at Academia Engiadina. “We need to find solutions for them, too.” The solutions the cable car companies find may not always be to the liking of the geologists. The Gemstock ski lift operators in Andermatt responded to their structural problems last year by injecting 210 tonnes of cement into the mountain at a cost of Sfr1.3m. Geologically it was a disaster. “Cement warms up the mountain and melts the permafrost,” said Mr Keller.

Not all ski lifts sitting in permafrost are in danger. The Schilthorn cable car station continually circulates cold air under the building, keeping the ground, and the permafrost underneath it, frozen. Peter Feuz, director of the Schilthorn cable car, said his firm spends around Sfr7m each year maintaining the building’s stability. He needs to. More than two million people used his lift last year, many of them British.

Heinz Schoeni, a government official responsible for cable car safety, said his office was constantly monitoring the situation, and that all ski lifts in Switzerland remain safe.

But scientists now say they cannot predict accurately where mudslides and rock flows will occur next. In the past, geologists have been able to forecast landslides by looking at past magnitude and frequency. The changing climate in the permafrost changes all that. Once it is warmed, all it takes is a trigger – such as a heavy rain – to cause a rock slide with deadly results.

Back at the Schilthorn the skiers have called it a day and are heading down the cable car to the bars. This makes Peter Lehner happy. The director of tourism for Berner Oberland, which includes the Schilthorn, has been worried since news of the permafrost warming.

Anything that might hurt tourism is taken seriously. All citizens of the town of Mürren work in the tourism industry.