Unusually extreme heat caused by climate change means that not only the French Alps are becoming too dangerous for mountain climbing in the summer.
The French village of Chamonix, which lies at the foot of Mont Blanc, is already a traditional center of European mountaineering. However, climate change is disrupting the once-reliable winter that underpins the region’s important tourism industry.
According to the Alpine Ecosystem Research Center, the Alps have warmed by about half a degree Celsius every decade since the 1980s. Due to the melting of the glaciers and the increased frequency of falling rocks, some of the most used routes have become impassable in the summer months.
And by all accounts, it will get worse, as temperature records rise every year. This August, a heat wave spread across the Alps, pushing the freezing point up to 5,298 meters, which is almost half a kilometer higher than the summit of Mont Blanc.
Climate change in the Alps
“Climate change worries me. But it is not the alpine flora and fauna that is vulnerable to it, it is man,” says Christian Körner, bioclimatologist and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in an interview for Nauzal.
In the summer, the relevant authorities also closed the roads to the famous Matterhorn, the third highest peak of the Swiss Jungfrau Alps, or to the popular Dent du Géant (Giant’s Tooth), which rises above the village of Chamonix, for safety reasons.
Due to the melting of the ice, Mont Blanc has shrunk by more than two meters in the last two years. Thawing also leads to dangerous rockfalls as the layer of permafrost that acts as the icy “glue” that holds alpine slopes together is loosened.
While these changes may be imperceptible to the tens of thousands of alpine enthusiasts who arrive each summer, mountain guides are beginning to worry. “Last summer was crazy,” Czech mountaineer Danny Menšík, who is accompanying in the vicinity of Chamonix, tells Bloomberg. “It was a black summer for mountaineering in the Alps,” he adds.
As the glaciers recede, known mountain routes change, new crevasses open up and rock faces once covered by ice are exposed, leading to more rockfalls. In the worst case, glaciers can suddenly collapse due to high temperatures, as for example last summer on Italy’s Marmolada peak or this year on Switzerland’s Allalinhorn, where the collapse of a glacier claimed the life of one climber.
Tourism forms a significant part of the local economy in many alpine resorts. In the case of Chamonix, this is up to two thirds. Up to two million tourists visit the area annually, generating €850 million in direct spending.
The main attraction is Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, which is visited annually by more than 20 thousand climbers, each of whom pays approximately two thousand euros for a three-day ascent to the top with a guide.
Guide companies in Chamonix have been forced to move popular alpine tours to the colder months in recent years. While it used to be common for guides to take a spring break between the winter skiing and summer climbing seasons, many now work almost non-stop because they anticipate August will be too hot to climb famous peaks like Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn .
Brad Carlson, a guide and ecologist with Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, says that if people are determined to reach a particular peak, they should be prepared to spend an extended period of time in the Alps to choose a day when the routes are in the best possible condition. In turn, this can be an advantage for the guide, as knowledge of local conditions becomes even more important as time goes on.