From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published April 9, 2012 09:13 AM

Melting Glaciers are Causing the Matterhorn to Come Apart

The Matterhorn is the iconic peak of the Alpine mountains on the border of Switzerland and Italy. Its majestic spire soars over 14,600 feet in the air, making it quite a sight to behold. The glaciers at the top of the mountain have been receding due to the changing climate, causing an increase in glacial melt water. According to a new study, the melting glaciers are causing large chunks of rock to be dislodged and tumble down the mountain. The deluge of water is penetrating cracks and fissures high up the mountain. The yearly freeze-thaw cycle causes these fissures to expand until entire boulders come loose of the Matterhorn and fall down its rocky slopes.


The study was conducted by scientists from the University of Zurich who began to closely examine the mountain in 2007. Their investigation was kick-started by an event which occurred in July, 2003. At the time, there was a huge rock fall at the Hornligrat part of the mountain, trapping 50 climbers. They had to be air-lifted to safety in one of the largest rescue operations ever in the Alps.

The Zurich researchers relied on sophisticated monitoring devices located in 17 key parts of the mountain. Their research has found an increasing frequency of rockfalls which they believe are directly linked to climate change.

The problem of melting glaciers penetrating fissures is not a problem solely of the Matterhorn, but of the rest of the Alps as well. The study also suggests that the effects of global warming on mountain ranges are much greater than previously believed. It not only raises temperatures, but has the ability to alter the shape of the mountain.

Lead researcher, Stephan Gruber warns of the safety implications of this phenomenon. There are many ski resorts in the Alps which use gondolas to transport skiers up the mountains. The cable car structures need to be examined carefully should they rest atop one of these icy fissures.

The University of Zurich study has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.

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Matterhorn image via Shutterstock

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