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As Alps Warm, Ice Melts and Mountains Crumble

Johann Kaufmann looks up at the west face of the Eiger, a route that's rarely used to summit anymore since the lack of snow and ice has led to too many dangerously loose rocks.
Emily Harris, NPR /
Johann Kaufmann looks up at the west face of the Eiger, a route that's rarely used to summit anymore since the lack of snow and ice has led to too many dangerously loose rocks.
The melting glacier feeds into this river. A possible flood is the most worrisome climate change scenario for local officials.
Emily Harris, NPR /
The melting glacier feeds into this river. A possible flood is the most worrisome climate change scenario for local officials.

As temperatures around the globe rise, the world's mountains are changing. In the Alps, retreating glaciers, more landslides and rockfalls are causing shifts not only in the physical environment, but in jobs, town budgets, and attitudes.

Johann Kaufmann is a climbing guide, born and raised in Grindelwald, a village tucked below the melting glaciers of Switzerland's central Alps. Trekking along the west edge of the Eiger, one of the most famous mountains in Switzerland, Kaufmann spots a band of snow chicks, flecked brown now in the summer to blend in with the rocks.

Although the summit looms above, few people head this way to the top of the Eiger anymore. There are too many loose rocks – and not enough ice or snow to hold them in place. Just around a jagged corner is the Eiger's famous and challenging north face. Kaufman says it's best to climb the north face in the winter now, when more snow and ice stabilize the route. He takes these changes in stride.

"It's not that dangerous like you hear sometimes," he says. "We can live with it but it's changing, that's a fact."

About half of Kaufman's work now comes not from climbing but from "cleaning" slopes – deliberately knocking down loose rocks that otherwise might crash onto streets or trails. It's been a gradual shift in business over the past decade. But last summer, Grindelwald experienced climate change like time lapse photography.

Dramatic Change

Massive rockfalls off the east flank of the Eiger brought flocks of TV reporters to try to capture it on film. One day nearly half a million cubic meters of rock – that's equivalent to about a half a million refrigerators - dropped all at once into the canyon below. Dust thickened the normally clear alpine village air. Tourism increased dramatically as people crowded a mountain hut opposite the fall to take a look. Even though hut owner Hansrudi Baeregg had never seen any rockfall this big, he says the attention became overkill.

"My boys counted the helicopter coming in 22 times in one day with different people," he says. "You know, it's a laughably small part of the Eiger that fell down."

Sheep graze the meadow behind his restaurant, and above the ruins of another hut that fell into the canyon as a glacier retreated. Now, as that glacier continues to melt, scientists are watching a basin that's developed at the bottom of the glacier. Geologist Hans Rudolf Keusen says the lake that sometimes fills the basin is not a danger at the moment.

"But in the future we expect that this basin could get volume of about 8-10 million cubic meters," Keusen says. "And if such a basin is filled with water that could be a big problem."

The current, small lake periodically disappears, draining suddenly through its unstable rock bed into a stream fed by other glacial runoff. Geologists worry that if the lake gets bigger, floods could swamp the main tourist tram up the mountain, a shopping center, and potentially, towns downstream.

Living in a Changing Landscape

Officials have installed an alarm system that gives a half an hour warning if water rises to a dangerous level. But they haven't practiced evacuations. Director of local emergency services Kurt Amacher says that's tricky in a tourist town.

"The locals, they would get it right away, but the guests... then it gets difficult, then it gets a little complicated," Amacher explains. "They'll suddenly feel unsafe and we absolutely don't want to do that."

There is talk of installing a wall in the canyon, or a tunnel, something hidden from view, that could control the water flow. Grindelwald's mayor, Dres Studer, thinks these are crazy ideas.

"These are all foolish things to do. It costs a hell of a lot of money and it doesn't really help. Just let the nature as it is," Studer says. "If there is a rock somewhere falling down, you don't make a scene and cry. It's just normal."

That includes global warming, a trend Studer is skeptical can be stopped in time to affect the Alps.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Harris
International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.