From yesterday's NYT:
August 8, 2005
Melting Mountain Majesties: Warming in Austrian Alps
By RICHARD BERNSTEIN
KAISER-FRANZ-JOSEFS-HÖHE, Austria - The jagged peak of the 11,361-foot mountain known as the Johannisberg looms against the sky at the end of a stunningly beautiful valley here in the Austrian Alps, and the Pasterze, Austria's biggest glacier, extends slowly downward and away from it for five miles.
The glacier is broad and grand, like the river of ice it is, and yet something about it is visibly not right, and you can tell right away what it is from the steep cable car that was built a bit more than 40 years ago to take tourists from the heights above down to the glacier itself.
"When it was built, it went right down to the glacier," recalled Erhard Trojer, owner of the Hotel Lärchenhof in the nearby ski resort village of Heiligenblut.
But now, if you stand at the bottom of the cable car line and look down at the tourists disporting themselves on the glacier, it is as though you are looking at them from an airplane.
"It's going down from four to eight meters a year," or about 13 to 26 feet, said Mr. Trojer, who grew up in this valley. "In the early 1960's, they used to have a ski race every spring from the top of the Grossglockner to the bottom of the glacier." The Grossglockner, which looms above the Pasterze, is, at 12,460 feet, Austria's highest mountain.
"They can't do it anymore," Mr. Trojer said a bit sadly. "It's warmed up, and there isn't enough snow."
Austria's glaciers - there are 925 of them - are shrinking fast, and as they shrink, this part of the world is slowly losing one of its many attractions, those rivers of ice that, figuratively and almost literally, reflect the grandeur of the mountains around them.
This is not happening only in Austria, of course. It's a worldwide phenomenon. One Chinese expert on glaciers, Yao Tandong, director of the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has said that the glaciers in the Himalayas shrink annually by an amount equivalent to all the water in the Yellow River, Agence France-Presse has reported.
In Switzerland, Austria, and Germany, some ski resorts - Ischgl, about 100 miles west of here, is one example - are so eager to retain the glaciers that they are covering them with vast sheets of white, sun-reflecting insulation in order to save them.
All kinds of hazards are being predicted as consequences of the glacial shrinkage, among them the possibility that desert towns in China's Xinjiang Province, which depend on seasonal glacial melting, will lose their underground water supplies.
Two European geologists, Andrea Hampel of the University of Bern and Ralf Hetzel of the University of Münster, wrote in the journal Nature earlier this year that the retreat of glaciers could cause an increase in the number of earthquakes.
Other scientists have warned that lakes forming in the back of glaciers because of melting ice could burst through cracks in the glaciers and cause tsunami-like devastation to towns down below.
"The problem is that the permafrost is going away," Hans-Erwin Minor, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, said in a telephone interview. "And there will be instabilities in the mountains, debris flows, mud flows, erosion of loose material."
Mr. Minor and other scientists attribute the speed of Pasterze's slow disappearance to the same global warming that is melting the polar ice caps. But they say that even without the impact of human activity the glacier would probably be shrinking anyway, as glaciers have always done in response to the earth's long cycles of relative warmth and cold.
"If you go back in history, there have been very large temperature changes," Mr. Minor said. "And now we are having a temperature change most likely influenced by man, and that accelerates the shrinkage. It's definitely the case that human action has an influence."
The Pasterze is Austria's best-known glacier, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, who drive, motorcycle or bicycle over the Grossglocknerstrasse, an amazing mountain road open only in summer, that was built in the early 1930's to attract tourists to this region.
On a recent Thursday, there were so many visitors that the immense multistoried parking garage at Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe (Emperor Franz Joseph's Heights) was full, and people in cars on the road below had to wait up to an hour for a space.
Standing at the bottom of the tram and looking across the valley, a visitor can see a sort of divide, perhaps 150 yards above the valley floor, marking the highest point of the glacier's bed. A line demarcates the moss-covered rocky mountain above from a steeply slanted, crumbled moraine below. The swift, stone-colored stream emanating from the glacier's edge flows past.
The glacier records show that Pasterze reached its greatest extent in the middle of the 19th century and has been retreating ever since. At the moment it is 1.5 miles shorter than it was 150 or so years ago. A bit over four decades ago, when the tram was built to bring visitors to the glacier, it was almost 500 feet higher than it is now, which is why the people scrambling around on top of it look so small from the tram bottom now.
"Normally the snow on the glacier should be there until the middle of July," said Bernhard Pichler, who trained as a geologist and now works for the tourist office in Heiligenblut, a few miles away at the end of the Grossglocknerstrasse.
"If there is enough snow," he continued, "the sun can melt some of it without reduction of the glacier, but we used to get five to seven meters of snow each winter and now we only get about three, and now the snow melts away by the beginning to middle of May."