Glacial Cover-Up Won't Stop Global Warming, But It Keeps Skiers Happy
EISGRAT, Austria It gets so cold up at this Alpine skiing station that the locals call it Eisgrat -- "Icy Spine." But Eisgrat's spine is melting.
A sign on a sheer cliff wall nearby points to a mountain hut. It should have been at visitors' eye level but is more than 20 meters (60 feet) above their heads. That's how much of the glacier has shrunk since the sign went up 35 years ago.
"It's not a good feeling," says Alois Ranalter, a maintenance worker who spends his summers focused on stopping the melt. "The glacier is our life."
Most of Austria's 925 glaciers have been receding under decades of global warming, prompting researchers and ski-lift operators to seek novel solutions. Here, in the Tyrol region of western Austria, they're fighting the melt by covering the weak spots with blankets of white plastic or foil that keep the cold in and the heat out.
They can't save whole glaciers, only slow the shrinkage.
"It's not possible to affect the process in any big way," says Andrea Fischer, an Innsbruck University researcher involved with the project. "But for us the work gives us an inside look at what forces are involved in glaciers' melting."
The covers -- complemented by a scattering of research stations sprouting antennas and solar cells -- have transformed Eisgrat's pristine vista that has drawn generations of skiers and hikers to the 2,900-meter-high (9,500-foot-high) mountain station.
Summer skiers now sweep by a patch of white polyethylene as big as a football field against the backdrop of majestic jagged peaks. It works like a picnic cooler, deflecting the summer sun while keeping the contents cool.
Rosemarie Gleichmann, a German visitor, doesn't mind the clash of man and nature.
"I think it's fine," she said, walking on a pathway covered with white material. "It protects the glacier, and we're up here because of the glacier."
These outsized doormats aren't new in Austria or elsewhere in the world. Patches around ski-lift pylons are particularly sensitive because the ice thaws and shifts each year, forcing workers to re-anchor the supports regularly. Around here, says Fischer, they've been doing it for years.
But then came the summer of 2003, when record temperatures and lack of snow and rain accelerated the melting, exposing patches of rock, earth and tree trunks of long-gone forests in the middle of ski slopes. Seeking relief, Wintersport Tirol AG & Co, which runs four Tyrolian ski resort regions, contacted scientists from the AlpS alpine research center and Innsbruck University glaciologists.
The first large areas were covered last year. This year, close to 15 hectares (nearly 40 acres) are under wraps in Tyrol's Stubaital, Oeztal, Kaunertal and Pitztal regions -- about 5 percent of the region's ski areas.
Similar work is being done in neighboring Switzerland, where studies show that glaciers there have lost almost a fifth of their total area between 1985 and 2000, at a rate seven times faster than during the entire 123 years up to 1973.
Urs Elminger, an executive of Andermatt Gothard Sportbahnen AG, says his company has already seen the benefits at its Andermatt ski resort. After six weeks under cover the melt has been minimal.
The 2,250 meters (7,500 feet) of blanket cost 30,000 Swiss francs (US$24,000 euro19,850), plus the expense of putting it down. But that is still cheaper than carting in snow and grading the slope.
Older people in Neustift im Stubaital, the Austrian village below Eisgrat, remember their grandparents sending their priest up into the mountains to appeal to God to stop the encroaching glacier. Now they pray for an end to the melt that threatens the jobs of about 1.2 million Tyroleans dependent in some way on glacier skiing.
But while agreeing that climate change caused by pollution must be reduced, researcher Fischer isn't too bothered by the glaciers' retreat.
"The climate has changed in the past, and it will change in the future," she says.
"The problem with most people is that they don't want anything to change -- not their jobs, not their relationships and definitely not the weather."
Associated Press writer Bradley S. Klapper contributed to this report from Geneva.
Source: Associated Press