Published: February 2006

Melting Alps

Skiers Mountain

Meltdown: The Alps Under Pressure

Long a social hot spot, Europe's winter playground is now warming up for real.

By Erla Zwingle
Photograph by Melissa Farlow and Randy Olson

Around mid-June the Pitztal Glacier in Austria goes on summer vacation. That is to say, it begins to melt, racing down Tyrolean mountainsides in frigid streams that eventually lose themselves, like Europeans in August, at a beach somewhere. But if you are the owner of a ski resort on a glacier, four months of melting is a major cause for concern. So one day the owners of the Pitztal Glacier ski resort decided to try something radical. They ordered a supply of what are basically huge white blankets and spread them across 15 acres of the glacier to keep it cold through the summer. It seems to be working: The melting has slowed. So now ski areas in Germany and Switzerland are also wrapping at least part of their glaciers. The glaciers may not feel better, but the resort owners certainly do.

One July morning I went up the Stubai Glacier with glaciologist Andrea Fischer and her team of students from the University of Innsbruck. They were there to give the glacier its weekly checkup, measuring how much it had melted under the various types of protective fabric—large squares of wool, hemp, plastic, and combinations of these that lay in rows across the slushy ice.

Continue »
email a friend iconprinter friendly icon   |