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Climate crisis makes mountains crumble

Oct 04, 2021 / Michael Gams, CIPRA International
Rockfalls and rockslides are nothing new in the Alps, but dwindling permafrost is making the situation even worse – for mountaineering and for villages.
Image caption:
The rock faces of the Zugspitze: in a few decades the permafrost will have disappeared.

A drone hovers in front of the rock faces of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak, but instead of beautiful panoramic images, its thermal imaging camera provides precise information on the state of the permafrost. This is ice that cements the rock together. Because climate change is pushing the frost line higher and higher, this putty is now melting – on the Zugspitze, the permafrost will disappear completely within decades. In a new research project, the drone’s thermal images will supplement the permanent measurements taken on the mountain. Researchers want to use them to assess the danger of rockfalls, landslides or mudslides even more precisely. Hiking trails could be closed in good time and villages evacuated in extreme cases.

When the mountain comes

The Swiss mountain village of Kandersteg in the Bernese Oberland lies below the 3,600-metre high Doldenhorn. There, 20 million cubic metres of rock are in motion – presumably due to melting permafrost. Although they would not fall directly onto the village, they would very likely trigger devastating mudslides. Protective dams and advance warning systems are intended to protect locals and guests in Kandersteg from the worst. As recently as 2017, around 3.1 million cubic metres of rock fell from Piz Cengalo on the Italian-Swiss border – the resulting mudslide reached as far as Bondo/CH and damaged several houses. For eight people on hiking trails, help came too late.

Crumbling paths, sinking huts

Two years ago, a rock slab broke off below the summit of the Matterhorn and killed two men. The cause: melting permafrost. Now closing the route or even the whole mountain is under discussion. In Austria, the Gamsgruben Trail to the Pasterze, the longest glacier in the Eastern Alps, had to be rerouted through tunnels at the beginning of the millennium owing to the danger of falling rocks. In the Ötztal Alps/A, the Hochwildehaus was abandoned because its permafrost foundation had thawed and it was sinking. Alpine associations have to secure the paths and huts with ever greater efforts – or capitulate to the forces of nature.

Sources and further information:,Sfnitwk (de), (de), (de), (de),SjdfI5i (de), (de) (de)