As Glaciers Melt, Alpine Mountains Lose Their Glue, Threatening Swiss Village

May 29, 2013

As Glaciers Melt, Alpine Mountains Lose Their Glue, Threatening Swiss Village

By JOHN TAGLIABUE

swiss-articleLarge

Tourists walking along a stream originating from the Lower Grindelwald Glacier in Switzerland. The glacier once extended  through the gorge.

GRINDELWALD, Switzerland — Marco Bomio recalls that bright Sunday morning in June 2006 as if it were yesterday. Mr. Bomio, 59, a school principal and mountain guide, attended a religious service on a high mountain meadow to mark the founding of a local guide group.

“Suddenly we saw this immense cloud,” he said over coffee in a wood chalet typical of this Alpine village. “Normally, it might have been snow. But in June?”

“Then we saw that it wasn’t snow,” he went on. “It was rock dust: part of the mountain had come down.”

Grindelwald, population 3,800, lies in the foothills of a wall of Alpine peaks, rising to more than 13,000 feet. It is also home to two of Switzerland’s largest glaciers, the Upper and Lower Grindelwald Glaciers, which for millenniums have snaked their way through Alpine gorges toward the town.

With global warming, the glaciers are melting. Once stretching to the edge of town, they now end high in the mountains. Moreover, their greenish glacial water is forming lakes. In summer, when the melting accelerates, floodwaters threaten the area. But the avalanche witnessed by Mr. Bomio shows that the shrinking of the glaciers removes a kind of buttress supporting parts of the mountains, menacing the region with rock slides.Grindelwald stands as a stark example of what is happening these days to Switzerland’s glaciers, and there are more than a hundred, large and small. As the Lower Grindelwald Glacier shrank, its ice no longer buttressed the east wall of the Eiger, a 13,025-foot mountain that is part of the ring south of Grindelwald. Moreover, the warming reduces the effect of permafrost that once acted as a sort of glue binding together the mass of the mountains. On that day in 2006, a chunk of the Eiger amounting to about 900,000 cubic yards fell from the east face, causing the cloud of rock dust that startled Mr. Bomio and his friends.

Since 1997, Ruth Meier has run the Hotel Gletscherschlucht (the name means glacier gorge), with 6 rooms and 18 beds, at a point where water from the melting lower glacier runs out of a steep and narrow gorge. Well into the 20th century, the glacier extended clear through the gorge, which is about three-fifths of a mile long, and until about World War I, ice blocks were carved out of it for use in cooling in restaurants and kitchens as far afield as Paris. Where her hotel stands a field kitchen once fed the workmen who hacked the ice.

But now a large lake of melted glacial water has formed above the gorge. To avoid potential flooding that would threaten the village below, Ms. Meier said, a $15 million tunnel, more than a mile long, was completed in 2010 to channel excess water when the lake swells in the summer. Before that was done, she said, summer floodwaters regularly pushed gigantic ice blocks down the gorge.

“In July and August, it sounded like battle tanks coming down,” she said, sipping mineral water. “You could hear the stones rolling.” Floodwaters forced their way through the narrowest parts of the gorge, about 30 feet across, “like water gushing from a garden hose,” she said.

Why build a hotel at such a delicate spot? “To be at the pulse,” Ms. Meier answered. “We’re at the pulse of the eternal ice.”

Well, not so eternal any more. Over the past century or so, glaciers like those around Grindelwald have receded by about 650 feet, said Hans-Rudolf Keusen, a geologist whose company, Geotest, helped design the overflow tunnel. “Since 1980 it has been very rapid,” Mr. Keusen said. “In the last 30 years the average temperature in the Alps has risen by one and a half degrees.”

For Alpine towns like Grindelwald, the changes are challenging. As the glaciers recede, they leave masses of rock and sediment — moraines — on their edges. In 2011, rock and snow came down on the upper glacier, as sides of a mountain became unstable without the supporting pressure of the ice. A year before the Eiger collapsed, in 2005, a section of a high Alpine meadow fell, leaving a popular restaurant, the Stieregg, hanging precariously on the edge. Ms. Meier’s mother-in-law recalled herding sheep there as a girl.

Tourism long ago supplanted agriculture as the driver of the local economy. Every year, about 800,000 visitors from all over Europe, but also from America and increasingly Asia, board trains to climb from the town center to the Jungfraujoch, a saddle between two peaks over 13,000 feet known as “the top of Europe,” to enjoy the view.

The first tourists, English aristocrats, came in the 18th century. The first hotel opened in 1820; the first skiers came in 1891. Tourism now amounts to “more than 80 percent of the economy,” said Bruno Hauswirth, a marketing expert who manages the local tourism agency.

“It’s not just tourism; it’s a cross section,” he said. “Construction, financial services, retail.” Outside his office, backhoes were excavating for a $30 million shopping area in the village center.

Mr. Hauswirth, 45, who skied and taught skiing in North America, Japan and New Zealand before returning to his native Grindelwald, sees the changes in the mountains as an opportunity, not just as a threat. “You learn to live with it,” he said. The risks “are no more than in other areas of the Alps,” he said, adding, “People here are used to living with the mountains; it’s natural.”

Tour guides like Mr. Bomio are even profiting from the results of global warming, organizing “warming tours” to explain its effects using local developments as examples.

“Here you can visualize it; you can see it and feel it,”’ Mr. Hauswirth said. “You can see how we are reacting to it.”

The gorge overflow tunnel is not the only reaction. Hiking trails are being moved to avoid areas at risk, said Herbert Zurbrügg, Grindelwald’s town secretary. Across the mountains, Mr. Zurbrügg said, the authorities are installing radar devices to track movements in the landscape so that the few tourist destinations that are near glaciers, like campsites, can be evacuated if necessary.

“I think we can say we have the situation under control,” Mr. Zurbrügg said. “There is no fear.” Most measures taken, to control the flow of meltwater or to monitor regions surrounding the glaciers, are well outside the inhabited parts of town, he said.

“We are in a fortunate situation,” he said. He paused, then added, “Yet, you never know.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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