Climate change in the Alps

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From the Schneefernerhaus, one can look down on the remnants of the Zugspitze glacier, which no longer has any snow cover. Riccardo Scandroglio is conducting research there together with colleagues and students from the Chair of Landslide Research (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, TUM School of Engineering and Design). At the environmental research station, he is trying to monitor the frozen rocks on the Zugspitze with geophysical measurements. The goal is to better understand climate change by the decline of alpine permafrost.

Schneefernerhaus Zugspitze
Schneefernerhaus in rock, without ice. Image: Riccardo Scandroglio/TUM
Riccardo Scandroglio in tunnel on Zugspitze for permafrost measurements
Laboratory conditions in Germany's highest tunnel in the Zugspitze 2,750 meters above sea level. Image: Johannes Leinauer/TUM

Commentary by Riccardo Scandroglio

In this heat, many people envy my workplace because the temperature here is permanently below zero degrees. Officially, my desk is in Munich, but once a month I am allowed to move my office to the Zugspitze, 2,750 meters above sea level, in an old, wet, dark and cool tunnel - Germany's highest tunnel. The current intense heat has refocused people's attention on climate change. The best testimony to this is the Zugspitze: no summit is visited so often and observed so intensively. Climate records of the German Weather Service (DWD) since 1900 prove that the air temperature has been constantly above average over the past 30 years. The past decade was even marked by record years: 2011 and 2020 were the warmest years since weather records began, and 2022 promises no improvement in the situation.

In practice, the disaster on the Marmolata was very difficult to predict

The climatic situation in the Bavarian mountains is not very different from that in the Dolomites, where on July 2 the glacier break on the Marmolata occurred, killing eleven people. This accident was certainly exceptional. All glaciers move slowly downhill, from a few to 150 meters per year. However, there are areas that can fall suddenly due to the edge of the terrain: climbers should avoid these. The part that started moving on the Marmolata was not counted among these dangerous areas because the triggering mechanism was different this time. There are measurement methods that can detect movement with millimeter precision: Thanks to such early warning systems, roads can be closed in time, for example. However, these warning systems cannot be set up everywhere for logistical and financial reasons. Dangerous areas must first be identified. This means that, based on the state of the art, failure could theoretically have been foreseen, but in practice it was very difficult to predict because the danger was unknown. The concerns are therefore great: "Can something like this also happen in Germany?" Those who travel in the Bavarian high mountains know the condition of the local glaciers. For the others, there is the work: "Second Bavarian Glacier Report" . It is entitled: "Future without ice". I would like to add: "... and without snow?" The data are clear: hardly any snow has fallen since February 2022. I sit in the Schneefernerhaus and look down on the remnants of a glacier that already has no snow cover at the beginning of July.

More hot days, winters with little snow, drier summers and heavier precipitation are the main changes that Meteo-Switzerland has calculated for the next few years. The consequences can be seen: the current drought in northern Italy or the flood disaster of 2021. Water plays an increasingly important role in the calculation of such events. In the form of snow, it has a key role that is often underestimated. That's because melting snowpack can quickly produce incredible amounts of water: we've measured up to 800 liters a day from a single crevasse. That was in June 2019, and there was more than six meters of snow on the Zugspitze at the time. In such cases, pressure can build up as water accumulates in fissures or crevasses. Or under a glacier. Many researchers speculate that this may have been one of the triggers for the Marmolata accident.

Sooner or later, some things in nature get out of balance

We can see nature as a very complex interaction of several elements that are in balance. But some things get out of balance sooner or later. These include slope movements. Disturbing factors can be ice formation in fissures or an earthquake, but the boundary conditions are set by geology and geomorphology. This means that a peak will not remain pointed forever; at some point, processes such as weathering will change its shape. We don't need to be afraid of this, but we do need respect. But this is often lacking.

My colleagues and I often work next to hiking trails or at mountain huts. The contact with mountaineers is motivating for us, but often we have to realize that people are not sufficiently prepared. Some visitors walk alpine routes without a plan and equipment. Knowing where you want to go, along which route, how much time it will take is important, as is looking at the weather. In the future, this will be even more important: forecast and development should always be kept in mind. Nevertheless, every climber must be aware that a residual risk will remain. But the big question is: Are the catastrophes in the mountains actually increasing or is it just being reported more? Climate change is triggering a change in the balance in many ecosystems. So the danger is generally increasing. At the same time, the intensive use of nature and the increase in mountain tourism are increasing people's exposure and thus their vulnerability. Greater hazard plus increased vulnerability means a significant increase in risk.

Therefore, users of high alpine regions will probably have to prepare for scenarios similar to those on the Marmolata in the future. The good news is that we as a society can do something. First, with an environmentally conscious lifestyle, so that climate change progresses more slowly. In addition, more experts should be trained in the field of natural hazards, more jobs should be created for this purpose, and the development and application of adequate technologies should be promoted. Only in this way can natural hazards be detected in time, better understood and, at best, predicted.

Profile of Riccardo Scandroglio

Comment originally published in SZ

Die Sendung mit der Maus - Story on permafrost with Riccardo Scandroglio