Erstellt am: 16. 7. 2012 - 15:42 Uhr
The wind is gusting fiercely as we approach the Colle di Teleccio, a 3304 metre high mountain pass straddling a crevasse-ridden glacier at in the Italian Gran Paradiso national park. On our way up to the ice-field we are forced to hop like mountain goats from rock to rock. Underneath the boulders, unseen by loud, a mountain stream rushes by. Where these rocks now lie, grey dappled with brown, just a generation ago the supposed “eternal ice” of a glacier would have been reflecting the UV rays back up into the atmosphere. Today the edge of the ice-field is still high above us.
When we finally get there the lower sections of the glacier the snow that fell over winter has already melted. The old ice is hard and dull. It`s covered in dirt and stones. “It`s a bit of sad scenery,” says my climbing partner Simone Bobbio, a mountain journalist from Turin. “It`s sad to see that everything is retreating. I think it is something that people who are passionate about the mountains feel more. We see the changes in our lifetimes.” Simone is only in his early 30s, but when he remembers the glacier coming down much further when he came to the mountains as a child.
New research from the University of Savoy, released this winter, suggested that glaciers in the French Alps have lost a quarter of their area in the past 40 years. Roland Psenner, a fresh water scientist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, has estimated that around 3% of Alpine glacial ice is lost each year. That corresponds to about 1m of ice-thickness every year.
In 2007 Psenner issued an urgent warning. He told the National Geographic that if the melting goes on at this pace, all but the highest of the Alpine glaciers “will be gone by 2030 to 2050.”
That heartbreaking statistic is on my mind, as for the first time in my life, I walk over a glacier. It is heart-stopping beautiful in this isolated place, where an amphitheater of jagged peaks tower above the now glistening white snow of the wide ice-field. We are alone in this giant landscape and I feel dwarfed. As Simone points out, the death of these icy water-storage systems will have practical implications for the villages and towns far down below valleys: “This is the reservoir for the plains. If these glaciers go, agriculture will suffer.”
"It is happening everywhere in the Alps," says Gianni, our guide for the day "In so many places, where once there was snow in August, now there are only rocks."
I`m glad to have Gianni with us. He has a reassuringly rich 19 years of experience as a guide. The recent avalanche tragedy in Chamonix, in which 9 climbers were killed, was a reminder that the high mountains are as hostile as they are seductive. I have always had a particular phobia of crevasses – those fissures in the ice that can be dozens of metres deep.
I have a horrifying picture in my head of me disappearing down the frozen gullet of the Earth. Since a glacier is constantly in motion, they are constantly opening or reclosing and, often hidden by a thin layer of snow, it is often impossible to predict where they are with any exactitude. I`m nervous as we unload ropes and crampons from our rucksacks.
This is not Heidi Land! A belligerent Reinhold Messner attacks modern Alpine tourism.
At the foot of the snow-field, Gianni shows me to me how to attach the sharp-teethed crampons to my boots. "Remember to walk with your legs wide apart and your toes pointing outwards," he advises me, "or you might stab yourself in the leg." So armed with an ice-axe, I waddled up the mountain like a long-legged duck. On the other side, as we head down into the Valle D’Aosta, the sun-warmed snow is soft and we can bounce down the steep slopes on our heels, the snow coming up to out heels. I can’t remember having so much fun with so many clothes on!
So can we save these magnificent glaciers? Professor Psenner, like the majority of his colleagues, is sure the melt is linked to man-made climate change.
Efforts are being made to reduce the carbon emissions in the fragile Alpine environment, of course – rail projects aimed at reducing the nefarious exhaust of road transit for example. There are also attempts to make tourism greener. I crossed the glaciers as part of a trip between two villages, Pralognan-la-Vanoise in France and Cogne in Italy that are part of the Alpine Pearls network that is trying to promote sustainable mountain holidays aiming at being carbon neutral. But on a global scale those efforts are, of course, mere drips in the ocean.
Psenner told the National Geographic that research shows past glacial melting occurred when atmospheric levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide were 280 parts per million. Nowadays levels are approaching 400 parts per million and even if we were to stabilize those levels it would be too little too late. So he concluded "Even if we could manage to keep the CO2 level constant…—mission: impossible—the glaciers will disappear within one generation."
It's a bitter, bitter thought.