The Changing Face of the Alpine Environment

The high-summer period has been all about the European Alps. In late July, into early August I had the excellent company of a client group on the GR54, Tour of the Oisans & Écrins. A wonderful ten days in the true Alpes-du-Soleil of the historical province of the Dauphiné. After a brief fortnight back in the cool blustery NW of England, it was southward bound again at the end of the month for an official holiday. This time a walking and mountaineering excursion based in the Swiss Val Ferret on the back end (and lesser frequented side) of the Mont Blanc range. Imogen and I joined a group of current and former Lancastrian friends for a communal camping trip, staying in the immaculate village of La Fouly. Two most excellent outings, and the waterproof trousers only went on once during the whole period! The nights are already drawing in considerably and we’re into climatological autumn. Time to pack up the summer gear and start planning for the cooler part of the year!

Perfect summer conditions on the GR54 Tour des Écrins near Col de la Muzelle, but barely a patch of snow in sight..!

Throughout these summer excursions, I’ve kept pondering on the realisation that we are living through a period of dramatic landscape change in the Alpine environment. I’ve been visiting the Alps regularly for just over 10 years now and even in such a short time, the evidence of change is stark.  My memories from first trips to the Bernese Oberland in 2002 and Valais in 2005 were of great white walls towering in the sky. The Jungfrau, as seen from Interlaken, an incredible hulk of a mountain, gripped by extensive glaciation. Over the last three summers, looking up to the towering heights of la Meije or the great glacier basins of Tour, Argentière or the Vallée Blanche of the Mont Blanc massif, it has been a case of out with the white and in with the grey. All three years have experienced a similar climatic trend; mild winters with lean snowfall followed by record summer warmth and spells of temperatures in the mid-to high thirties at 1000 m. The climatic pulse has shifted, and the landscape is responding accordingly.

Mapping glacial retreat of the Glacier du Dolent, Swiss Val Ferret. The Swiss topo map from 1995 marks the terminus approximately at the red-dashed line. The glacier surface area has reduced by around 50% in just 22 years!

The mountains, whilst youthful in geological terms, are experiencing perhaps one of the most rapid transitions in their appearance as their pristine white façades are stripped back, exposing fresh, unweathered bedrock slabs, vast swathes of pulverised rock flour and stacks of unstable boulders and scree. Recently active terminal and lateral moraines several hundred metres away from the present-day ice, identify the speed and extent of glacial retreat. Topographical maps printed in the early 2000’s are already well-behind the times in terms of displaying the 2017 summer-minimum of snow and ice cover. Landscape change on the scale of which is currently being observed in the Alps was always something that I considered to be outside the timeframe of a single human lifetime. All readily available in the textbook, but rarely observed in the field. Subtle change was always inevitable, but transformational change was the preserve of the geological time units of the epoch, period or even era. In the UK mountains, we’re surrounded by the products of former but long ceased geomorphological processes; end moraines, cirques, scree slopes, arêtes, lakes and drumlins. However the relative stability of rock deposits, lichen, moss and grass cover gives a sense of long-preserved relics of a former, more active landscape locked in time by present-day stability.

At the head of the Combe de l’A just below the Mont Ferret; a perennial snow patch once lay here, and before that, a small cirque glacier (the debris on the right of the image is a small end-moraine). All that remains in late-summer 2017 are two tiny snow patches just below the rock buttress of the Mont Ferret.

In the Alpine environment, deglaciation is happening within our lifetime. By 2050, it seems likely that the majority of terrain below 4000 m will be clear of snow and ice during the summer, and the idea of deep Alpine valleys loaded with winter snow will be something of a nostalgic memory. And what can be done to stop this? Probably very little; the background climatic forcing coupled with a reduction in surface snow & ice cover is a recipe for a positive feedback loop; snow and ice loss becomes more and more rapid until it dissapears altogether or there is a major shift back to a cooler climate. For the white stuff to return in abundance it will take, either in isolation or some complex combination, a return of Earth’s atmospheric CO2 to pre-industrial levels, a supervolcano such as Yellowstone or a meteorite strike throwing millions of tonnes of ash into the upper atmosphere reducing solar input or indeed a reduction in solar radiation either directly itself or as a result of the orbital cycles.

The Alps are dynamic, active Earth. Continually pushed skyward by the tectonic forces of the Mediterranean region but worn down by erosive forces at an equal rate. They’re certainly a living landscapes in all senses of the phrase. As the most populous mountain environment on Earth, they’re also a fascinating place from the perspective of human-landscape interactions. How will the people of the Alps adapt to the climatically-forced landscape changes? Over the next 25 years, we’re sure to find out.

2 thoughts on “The Changing Face of the Alpine Environment

  1. Stephen

    Great stuff. Have you sent it to “time for geography”. Just been to Sarah’s wedding in church and now got a few hours before the evening do to take dogs out etc.

    Sent from my iPad



  2. Pingback: Alpine Resilience in a Changing World – DARREN AXE IML FRGS

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