The Heat Is Online

Warming Threatens Alpine Tourism

Record heatwave closes Mont Blanc to tourists

Dramatic proof of global warming as peaks begin to crumble in high temperatures and snowline retreats

The Observer (U.K.), Aug. 17, 2003

It figured as a stop on adventurous young men's nineteenth-century Grand Tour, and in summer 300 people might climb it in a single day. This year, for the first time since its conquest in 1786, the heatwave has made western Europe's highest peak too dangerous to climb.

Mont Blanc is closed.

The conditions have been so extreme, say glaciologists and climate experts, and the retreat of the Alps' eternal snows and glaciers so pronounced, that the range - and its multi-billion-pound tourist industry - may never fully recover. The freak weather, with no substantial snowfall since February, means pylons holding up ski-lifts and cable cars may be too dangerous to use next winter, while the transformation of shining mountains into heaps of grey scree and rubble is unlikely to persuade tourists there this summer to return.

From the streets of Chamonix, the bustling resort at its base, Mont Blanc and its outlying peaks, the Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc du Tacul and Mont Maudit, rise in a giant curtain usually filling half the sky with dazzling whiteness. This year they are grey with old, dirty ice from which the overlying snow has long melted, while their slopes are being raked by regular fusillades of rocks, some the size of cars, dislodged as the ice surrounding them melts in the heat.

In some areas it is too dangerous to follow paths that would normally be used by thousands of ramblers.

From Chamonix, three routes suited to guided climbers of modest ability lead to the summit of Mont Blanc, almost 16,000ft above sea level. Two of these routes, the so-called Grands Mulets and the 'three summits' path via Mont Blanc du Tacul, have been turned into death traps of open crevasses, unstable, overhanging ice cliffs and vertical icy walls, where normally there would be a pleasant, albeit strenuous, track through the snow.

The third route, the Gouter Ridge, is one of the worst spots for rockfalls. After two climbers died merely trying to reach the restaurant near the start of the route last week, Chamonix guides announced that using this path was 'strongly ill-advised'. A guides' spokeswoman said: 'We are not taking bookings for Mont Blanc by any route. For this year, it is finished.'

'No one has ever seen a year like this,' said a spokesman for Chamonix's Office de Haute Montagne. 'There has been occasional rain in the valley, which would normally fall as snow in the high mountains. But after a very warm and dry spring, the freezing level has mostly been above 13,000ft since the beginning of June.'

Those who know the mountains have been astonished to see no snow on the summit of Mont Blanc's subsidiary summit, the Dome de Gouter - almost 15,000ft high.

Famous peaks are disintegrating before Chamoniards' eyes. Patricia Rafaelli, a ski instructor, was in her office at the Chamonix golf club watching the Dru, a granite spire, which bears some of the world's hardest rock climbs, falling apart as the ice holding it together melted. 'I'm sitting here and every hour or so there is another rockfall, with boulders thundering down through the forests below the mountain and filling the sky with dust,' she said.

Glaciologists estimate it will take 30-40 metres of snow, which would normally take several harsh winters to fall, to make good the deficit of snow and ice that has melted this summer.

Dr. Jonathan Bamber, reader in glaciology at Bristol University, said it is likely that, unless global warming unexpectedly goes into reverse, the damage to the Alpine environment and to the tourism that depends upon it can never be repaired.

He said: "People don't seem prepared to take real notice of [global warming] and start to press for something to be done until it affects their own backyard and livelihood. What's happened to the Alps this year, coming after a long run of very warm years, is almost an allegory for the kind of events that may take place elsewhere."

Bamber, an experienced mountaineer, described the effective closure of Mont Blanc as historic: "Climbing Mont Blanc from Chamonix with a guide is something people have done for over 200 years.

"This is a major wake-up call, and no way is a normal winter going to put this back. You're looking at something that is going to have a serious long-term impact."

Bamber said that the melting of the layer of permafrost that holds the peaks together, said to have occurred this year to a depth of seven feet, will make ski facilities, such as lifts and cable-car pylons unstable, costing millions to repair. "I wouldn't be buying shares in the ski industry right now," he said.

While the lower resorts do not rely on the permafrost for their lifts, they are already at risk from the steady rise in the winter snowline. A Unesco report last year quoted Swiss glaciologist Bruno Messerli from the University of Bern, who said that within 20 years low-level ski stations would be forced to close.

"Big banks will no longer give loans for new ski industry constructions," he said, adding that from 1850 to 1980 Alpine glaciers lost half their volume, and in the 20 years from 1980 to 2000, another quarter of what was left was also lost.

Bamber said the effect on summer tourism would be disastrous. 'Who wants to come and see a pile of stones? This isn't why people visit the Alps,' he said.

He warned that the disappearance of snow could intensify global warming and damage to the mountains, because once snow is replaced by darker, matt surfaces, such as grey ice and rubble, heat and light once reflected into space are absorbed. "You get a very strong positive feedback at both the poles and in mountain ranges when this happens," he said.

Bamber is leading a team working on the consequences for the whole Northern Hemisphere and its climate of the fact that by 2050 it is likely there will be no sea ice at all in summer in the Arctic: "This will have very profound consequences, with the likelihood of much more precipitation and violent storms," he said.

Doug Scott, one of Britain's greatest mountaineers, said he was glad he had done his Alpine mountaineering in the 1960s and 70s.

"It's a tragedy," he said. "Here is the most dramatic and visible proof that the climate is changing, and still the Americans won't sign the Kyoto Agreement restricting greenhouse gas emissions."

Fire and floods worldwide

Average temperatures across Europe have been 5C warmer for the past two months. Drought is costing billions of euros in crop damage.

In India, temperatures have reached 49C, resulting in more than 1,500 deaths.

Heatwaves and flooding have killed 569 people so far in China.

A state of emergency has been declared in British Columbia after the worst fires in 50 years.

Pakistan's heatwave followed by rains has left hundreds of thousands homeless and damaged 45 per cent of crops in some states.

In Russia, hundreds of fires have devastated swaths of Siberia. Croatia has lost 12,300 acres of forests and olive groves.

A national disaster has been declared in Portugal after fires killed 11 and destroyed 100,000 acres of forest.

In Germany, record temperatures continue with the Rhine drying up in parts and farmers unable to feed their cattle.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003