On the Precipice – The Alps


Steep rock faces, majestic peaks and a fascinatingly diverse range of plant and animal species: the Alps are among the most spectacular landscapes in the world. As a result of a warming climate, the Alpine habitats are changing at an alarming rate, and the Alps now find themselves on the precipice of an uncertain future.

On July 12, 2023, a large section of the Fluchthorn Mountain’s peak collapsed high above the Tyrolean village of Galtür. Tens of thousands of tons of rock hurtled down the slopes, narrowly avoiding human infrastructure. Amazingly, nobody was injured. The rock fall was caused by thawing permafrost, the ice that lies deep within the mountain and essentially holds it together. Areas that are at risk of such collapse are now monitored using drones. Cameras track every suspicious change in the rock formations, allowing experts to predict impending danger.

Scientists have been warning of the effects of climate change for decades, but even they are surprised by the rapid and far-reaching nature of its effects in the Alps. In August 2023, record temperatures of almost 15 degrees Celsius were registered at the Sonnblick Observatory 3,000 metres above sea level. The Alpine region is warming faster than other parts of Europe, and the glaciers and ice caves are receding at a disturbing pace.

The changing climate is a challenge for the region’s human and animal inhabitants. Marmots attempt to escape the heat by moving further up the mountains. Before long, however, layers of soil are too shallow to accommodate their burrows. Chamois are also facing new difficulties, as parasites like the barber’s pole worm, which thrive in warm conditions, have now been found at elevations of round 2,500 metres. The chamois affected by the parasite lose a lot of blood and eventually die.

The Alpine forests are also under attack. Increasingly dry summers have led to an explosive rise in bark beetle populations at ever higher elevations. The beetles have begun to attack healthy trees, particularly spruce trees, that are already suffering the effects of the high temperatures. Many of these forests serve protective purposes, and their loss could have dramatic knock-on consequences. As a result, foresters have begun planting more resilient tree species, like larch and oak, in mountain forests.

Tourism plays an important role in the Alps, but climate change is undermining the entire sector. In 2023, the ski lifts on Mt. Dachstein were closed and dismantled forever. Otherwise, the melting glacier would have required the constant relocation of unstable supporting towers and the demolition of rocks emerging from below the melting ice. Experts now predict that skiing will soon be a thing of the past below 1,500 metres, despite the aid of snow cannons.

The inhabitants of the Alps refuse to take the changes lying down: efforts are underway to secure the higher-elevation areas and plant new forests, while innovative tourism concepts encourage visitors to arrive by train and take advantage of electric vehicles to get around. For several years now, lecturers from the University of Innsbruck have been taking schoolchildren up to the Gaisberg Glacier to show them the rapid decline of the ice and encourage them to think about a better, more environmentally-sustainable future – their future.

A production of Terra Mater Studios