Seeing the Shrink

Cold Front

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Last summer, mired in the worst heat wave in a century, Parisians bathed in the city’s outdoor fountains, Italians suffered through rolling blackouts, and Germans fretted about a beer shortage. Still, it was the continent’s skiers that were really were sweating it. As soaring temperatures boosted the freezing level to 13,800 feet—some 3,900 feet higher than an average summer’s—the glaciers in the Alps hemorrhaged ice water. Switzerland’s Aletsch glacier, the largest on the continent, lost more than six feet from its edges, and other glaciers melted at rates up to 10 times faster than normal. Even the ice tunnel to the Valle Blanche from the tram station atop the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix disappeared. It had been there for 48 years. Experts warn that the great melt could have a sizeable impact on European skiing—both this winter and in the future.

“Ski touring on glaciers, like the famous Haute Route, will be more dangerous than in other years,” says Armin Oehrli, director of the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations (IFMGA). It seems crevasses that could swallow an Amtrak are now treacherously exposed for the upcoming season. Meanwhile, resort operators in places like Zermatt and Verbier worry that the warming of permafrost at high elevations could put lift anchors in jeopardy. More than ever, Euro skiers in the know are praying for an early cold snap and big dumps this December.

But while a healthy winter will solve problems in the short term, it won’t change the fact that Europe’s glaciers have been shrinking since the 1850s—and at a rate that has only increased in the last three decades. In the 1990s, the World Glacier Monitoring Service predicted that if the warming trend continued, Europe’s glaciers would be at 50 percent of their 1850 levels by 2025. Now, with an estimated 30 percent liquified, the organization might revise its prediction. “It’s going faster than we thought,” says member Wilfried Haeberli, a professor at the University of Zurich. The rapid retreat could mean that summer glacier skiing might soon go the way of the dodo. Switzerland’s Crans Montana and St. Moritz, once year-round operations, no longer offer summer skiing, while nearby Saas Fee recently suffered one of its worst summers ever.

Despite the grim statistics, both guides and ski area managers point out that glacier skiing accounts for only a small fraction of European skiing. “Worst-case scenario is that the warming trend continues, leaving easy routes a maze of crevasses,” says Ramsay Thomas, an American IFMGA guide working in Chamonix. “But my intuition says that after an epic hot summer we’ll have an epic snow year, and the heat wave will have little effect.”