The Guardian view on the warming of the Alps: a challenge for tourism

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The Victorian writer and mountaineer Leslie Stephen – the father of Virginia Woolf – called the Alps “Europe’s playground”. And so they have been, both winter and summer, for many generations. But with excessive warming now putting some of the Alps’ most iconic peaks off limits, how long can the freedom of Europe’s playground continue?

The fundamental problem is the warming of the Alps. Snowfall this past winter – especially in the southern Alps – was reduced by two-thirds from what was once considered normal. The loss of snowmelt is a direct cause of this summer’s brutal drought in the Po Valley. Last month, Swiss scientists found that weather balloons had to rise to 5,184 meters (over 17,000 feet), well above the very highest peaks, before they finally reached freezing.

The central Alps are also hard hit. This year, all the snow had gone by the beginning of July, at least a month earlier than the previous record. There is no snow on the now closed Matterhorn summit. Meanwhile, the rapid melting of the nearby Theodul Glacier has meant that the Italo-Swiss border itself, which traditionally follows the north-south drainage divide, has had to be moved significantly in Italy’s direction as the glacier has shrunk.

Higher temperatures mean less ice, including less permafrost; less ice means more rock jumps; and more stone falls mean more deaths. The worst accident this summer has been on the Marmolada glacier on the northern slopes of the highest peak in the Italian Dolomites. Eleven climbers were killed when a block of ice and rock plunged down the glacier without warning. The marmolada has lost 80% of its volume since 1950, and may disappear completely in another 15 years. Other alpine glaciers face similar fates, with widening crevasses causing additional hazards.

Half of all mountaineering accidents in France occur on the highest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc. The main route from Chamonix up Mont Blanc has become so dangerous that many local guides stopped all ascents in June after another rock fall. Traditionally, alpine climbers have set off in the early hours to ensure conditions are frozen and firm. It is now often impossible because the temperatures are too high, which increases the danger.

The second problem is the exhaustion of mass tourism in this increasingly fragile environment. Three years ago, many were shocked by images from the Himalayas of climbers queuing to climb the last ridge of Mount Everest. Similar scenes have long been known in the Alps as well.

Around 120 million tourists visit the Alps during a typical year. Most visitors live in the valleys and hotel complexes. Many others choose a wide range of outdoor activities. A Chamonix guide accuses tourists of climbing Mont Blanc just to take a selfie at the top. In 2019, a ban on paragliders landing there had to be introduced.

In the Alps, the 21st century’s increasingly head-on collision between industrial tourism and the climate crisis is destroying some of the environments that initially attracted so many to the high mountains, as well as generating an ever-increasing number of accidents. Closing the playground in Europe would be unenforceable and unfair, as well as economically devastating. But without collective self-denial and behavioral change, an already bad situation will simply get worse.

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