One experimental square, made of plastic, had dropped almost a foot in a week. "It's quite normal that glaciers are gaining or losing mass," Fischer said. What's not normal, say climatologists, is how fast it's happening today. Fischer and her students made note of which material had slowed the melting most effectively. Various materials, including a new white fleece, had slowed the melting to an impressive two inches.
You can't wrap a whole mountain range in a blanket. But with so much riding on Alpine ice and snow—skiing, tourism, service industries, and the livelihoods of probably millions of workers—it's easy to see why some people might want to. Yet it will take more than blankets to shield the Alps from the environmental and human pressures facing them today.
This month the Winter Olympics will unfold in the ranges outside Turin, Italy, and television will replay the old Alpine themes—Heidi, yodeling, cheese with holes in it—while focusing on vistas in which nature still appears omnipotent and largely undisturbed.
That is an illusion. Arrayed across the heart of Europe, the Alps have been intensely used for centuries, and even today only 17 percent of their 74,000 square miles (191,659 square kilometers) are protected as parks. Their usable space is so limited that the average Alpine valley is an orgy of multitasking: factories, train tracks, hotels, houses, churches, ski lifts, farms, parking lots, lumberyards, stores, restaurants, and boutiques, all bundled together by swooping concrete parabolas of roads. And while the Alps may look empty on television, nearly 14 million people live there, two-thirds of them in urban areas and some in areas with a greater population density than the Netherlands.
But the sentimental stereotypes are hard to give up, and people almost instinctively blot out the lumber mills, construction cranes, and power lines. Andreas Goetz, executive director of the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps, recognizes this. "A lot of people come to the Alps looking for the old man with the beard, content with himself, smoking a pipe," he told me, a little ironically, in his solar-heated house in Switzerland. "We produce our chocolate and cheese and are happy all day long."
The old man is nowhere to be found. In another era Hans Gisler might have grown into the part. Instead this young Swiss sculptor left his farm in the remote mountain hamlet of Riemenstalden five years ago to seek his fortune in the prosperous small town of Altdorf, ten miles (16 kilometers) away down the valley, where he makes his living out of wood, metal, and his own talent.
Altdorf has a lot to offer: legend (it was where William Tell shot the apple off his son's head), industry (Merck pharmaceuticals), and a steady tourist business that attracts thousands of visitors a year. A number of them buy gallery pieces from local artists who, like Gisler, draw inspiration from the Alps overlooking Altdorf—blinding mountain bulwarks that seem to have been hacked out of the firmament with axes.