In Austrian Alps, a not-so-glacial retreat
- In Austrian Alps, a not-so-glacial retreat
By Richard Bernstein The New York Times
MONDAY, AUGUST 8, 2005
KAISER-FRANZ-JOSEFS-HÖHE, Austria The jagged peak of the 3,467-meter
mountain known as the Johannisberg looms up against the sky at the
end of a stunningly beautiful valley here in the Austrian Alps, and
the Pasterze, Austria's biggest glacier, extends slowly downward and
away from it for eight kilometers.
The glacier is broad and grand, like the river of ice it is, and yet
something about it is visibly not right, and you can tell right away
what it is from the steep cable car that was built a bit over 40
years ago to take tourists from the heights above down to the glacier
"When it was built, it went right down to the glacier," said Erhard
Trojer, owner of the Hotel Lärchenhof in the nearby ski resort
village of Heiligenblut.
But now, if you stand at the bottom of the cable car run and look
down at the tourists disporting themselves on the glacier, it is as
though you are looking at them from an airplane.
"It's going down from four to eight meters a year," said Trojer, who
grew up in this valley. "In the early 1960s, they used to have a ski
race every spring from the top of the Grossglockner to the bottom of
The Grossglockner, which looms above the Pasterze, is, at 3,798
meters, or 12,460 feet, Austria's highest mountain.
"They can't do it anymore," Trojer said a bit sadly. "It's warmed up,
and there isn't enough snow."
Austria's glaciers - there are 925 of them - are shrinking fast, and
as they shrink, this part of the world is slowly losing one of its
many attractions, those rivers of ice that, figuratively and almost
literally, reflect the grandeur of the mountains around them.
This is not only happening in Austria, of course. It's a Europe-wide
and worldwide phenomenon. One Chinese expert on glaciers, Yao
Tandong, director of Tibetan Plateau Research at the Chinese Academy
of Sciences, has said that the glaciers in the Himalayas shrink
annually by an amount equivalent to all the water in the Yellow River.
In Switzerland, Austria and Germany, some ski resorts - Ischgl, about
160 kilometers east of here, is one example - are so eager to retain
the glaciers are covering them with vast sheets of white, sun-
reflecting insulation in order to save them.
All kinds of hazards are being predicted as consequences of the
glacial shrinkage, among them the possibility that desert towns in
China's Xinjiang Province, which depend on seasonal glacial melting,
will lose their underground water supplies.
Two European geologists, Andrea Hampel of the University of Bern and
Ralf Hetzel of the University of Münster, wrote in the journal Nature
this year that the retreat of glaciers could cause an increase in the
number of earthquakes.
Other scientists have warned that lakes of melted ice forming behind
glaciers could burst through cracks in the glaciers and cause tsunami-
like devastation to towns down below.
"The problem is that the permafrost is going away," Hans-Erwin Minor,
of the Swiss Federation Institute on Technology in Zurich, said in a
telephone interview, "and there will be instabilities in the
mountains, debris flows, mud flows, erosion of loose material."
Minor and other scientists attribute the speed of Pasterze's
disappearance to the same global warming phenomenon that is melting
the polar ice caps. But they say that, even without that impact as a
result of human activity, the glacier would probably be shrinking
anyway, as glaciers have always done in response to the Earth's long
cycles of relative warmth and cold.
"If you go back in history, there have been very large temperature
changes," Minor said, "and now we are having a temperature change
most likely influenced by man, and that accelerates the shrinkage.
It's definitely the case that human action has an influence."
The Pasterze is Austria's best-known glacier, attracting hundreds of
thousands of visitors a year, who drive or motorcycle or bicycle over
the Grossglocknerstrasse, an amazing mountain road open only in
summer, that was built to attract tourists to this region in the
On a recent Thursday, there were so many visitors that the immense
multistoried parking garage at Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Höhe, or Emperor
Franz-Joseph's-Heights, was full, and people in cars on the road
below had to wait up to an hour for a space.
Standing at the bottom of the tram and looking across the valley, a
visitor can see a sort of divide, perhaps 135 meters above the valley
floor, marking the highest point of the glacier's bed. A line
demarcates the moss-covered rocky mountain above from a steeply
slanted crumbled moraine below.
The swift, stone-colored stream emanating from the glacier's edge
The glacier records show that Pasterze reached its greatest extent in
the middle of the 19th century and has been retreating ever since.
At the moment it is 2.5 kilometers shorter than it was 150 or so
years ago. Slightly more than four decades ago, when the tram was
built to bring visitors to its surface, it was 150 meters higher than
it is now, which is why the people scrabbling around on top of it
look so small from the bottom of the tram now.
"Normally the snow on the glacier should be there until the middle of
July," said Bernhard Pichler, who trained as a geologist and now
works for the tourist office in Heiligenblut, a few miles away at the
end of the Grossglocknerstrasse.
"If there is enough snow," he continued, "the sun can melt some of it
without reduction of the glacier, but we used to get five to seven
meters of snow each winter and now we only get about three, and now
the snow melts away by beginning to middle of May."