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In Austrian Alps, a not-so-glacial retreat

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  • Mike Neuman
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 8, 2005
      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 glacier."

      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
      early 1930s.

      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
      flows past.

      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."
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