The Guardian view of warming in the Alps: a challenge for tourism

The Guardian view of warming in the Alps: a challenge for tourism

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Victorian writer and mountaineer Leslie Stephen – Virginia Woolf’s father – called the Alps “the playground of Europe”. And that for many generations in winter as well as in summer. But with excessive warming now putting some of the Alps’ most famous peaks out of reach, how much longer can the freedom of Europe’s playground last?

The basic problem is the warming of the Alps. Snowfall last winter – particularly in the southern Alps – was two-thirds less than what used to be 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 had to climb to 5,184 meters (over 17,000 feet), well above the very highest peaks, before finally reaching freezing point.

The central Alps are also badly affected. This year the snow was gone by early 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 nearby Theodul Glacier has meant that the Italian-Swiss border itself, which traditionally follows the north-south watershed, has had to be significantly shifted towards Italy due to the shrinking of the glacier.

Higher temperatures mean less ice, including less permafrost; less ice means more rockfall; and more rockfalls mean more fatalities. The worst accident this summer happened on the Marmolada glacier on the northern slopes of the highest peak in the Italian Dolomites. Eleven climbers died when a block of ice and rock fell down the glacier without warning. The Marmolada has lost 80% of its volume since 1950 and could disappear entirely in another 15 years. Other Alpine glaciers face a similar fate, with expanding crevasses bringing additional 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 has become so dangerous that many local guides suspended all climbs in June after another rockfall fatality. Traditionally, alpinists set out in the early hours of the morning to ensure conditions are frozen and firm. This is often no longer possible today because the temperatures are too high, which increases the risk.

The other problem is the decline in mass tourism in this increasingly fragile environment. Three years ago, many were shocked by images from the Himalayas of climbers queuing to scale the last ridge of Mount Everest. Similar scenes have also long been known in the Alps.

In a typical year, around 120 million tourists visit the Alps. Most visitors stay in the valleys and hotel complexes. Many others are opting for a proliferating variety of outdoor activities. A Chamonix guide has accused tourists of climbing Mont Blanc just for a selfie at the summit. In 2019, a landing ban for paragliders had to be imposed there.

In the Alps, the increasingly head-on collision of industrial tourism and climate crisis in the 21st century is destroying some of the environments that drew so many people to the high mountains in the first place, causing more and more accidents. Closing down the European playground would be unenforceable and unfair, and it would also be economically devastating. But without collective self-denial and behavior change, an already bad situation will only get worse.

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