Italian officials released last month images showing about 250 cubic meters of ice that were poised to break off of Planpincieux Glacier, which lies on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps and the highest in Europe west of the Caucasus Mountains.
The glacier stretches 2.5 kilometers along Mont Blanc’s southern slope and covers an area a little over a square kilometer.
The images were released just as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in its most resent report that the world’s oceans and cryosphere are already being radically altered by a warming world.
Carolina Adler, the executive director of the Mountain Research Initiative, is a lead author on the report.
“In this report we present key evidence on observed and projected trends in warming and how these trigger physical responses in the ocean and cryosphere,” Adler said. “These physical responses also lead to impacts on both people and ecosystems that are evident today, and are projected to increase into the future. However, despite these significant observed and projected changes, there is still an opportunity to reduce the risk of large impacts and ensure adaptation is more effective through emissions reduction. In essence, we highlight the benefits of ambitious and effective adaptation.”
Experts have warned that a massive glacier on the Italian side of Mont Blanc is melting at an accelerated rate and is close to collapse. pic.twitter.com/4J4mxSgyw9
Further illustrating the decline of ice mass on Mont Blanc, the University of Dundee released last week a comparison of aerial images of the peak taken a century apart. Swiss pilot and photographer Walter Mittelholzer flew over the same landscape in a biplane in 1919.
University of Dundee’s Kieran Baxter described flying over Mont Blanc to capture the comparison photo.
“The scale of the ice loss was immediately evident as we reached altitude, but it was only by comparing the images side-by-side that the last 100 years of change were made visible,” he said. “It was both a breathtaking and heartbreaking experience, particularly knowing that the melt has accelerated massively in the last few decades.”
From Geomorphology: “Ahora Gorge is a 400 m deep canyon located along the North Eastern flank of Mt. Ararat (Turkey), a compound volcanic complex covered by an ice cap. In the past, several diarists and scientific authors reported a calamitous event on July 2, 1840, when a landslide triggered by a volcanic eruption and/or an earthquake obliterated several villages located at the foot of the volcano. The reasons and effects of this Ahora Gorge Catastrophe (AGC) event have been obscure and ambiguous. To reappraise the 1840 catastrophe and the geomorphic evolution of the Ahora Gorge, we used high-resolution satellite images, remote sensing thermal data supplemented by observations collected during two field surveys.”
Albedo Effect in the Swiss Alps
From The Cryosphere: “Albedo feedback is an important driver of glacier melt over bare-ice surfaces. Light-absorbing impurities strongly enhance glacier melt rates but their abundance, composition and variations in space and time are subject to considerable uncertainties and ongoing scientific debates. In this study, we assess the temporal evolution of shortwave broadband albedo derived from 15 end-of-summer Landsat scenes for the bare-ice areas of 39 large glaciers in the western and southern Swiss Alps. […] Although a darkening of glacier ice was found to be present over only a limited region, we emphasize that due to the recent and projected growth of bare-ice areas and prolongation of the ablation season in the region, the albedo feedback will considerably enhance the rate of glacier mass loss in the Swiss Alps in the near future.”
Glacier Meltwater Impacts in Greenland
From Marine Ecology Progress Series: “Arctic benthic ecosystems are expected to experience strong modifications in the dynamics of primary producers and/or benthic-pelagic coupling under climate change. However, lack of knowledge about the influence of physical constraints (e.g. ice-melting associated gradients) on organic matter sources, quality, and transfers in systems such as fjords can impede predictions of the evolution of benthic-pelagic coupling in response to global warming. Here, sources and quality of particulate organic matter (POM) and sedimentary organic matter (SOM) were characterized along an inner-outer gradient in a High Arctic fjord (Young Sound, NE Greenland) exposed to extreme seasonal and physical constraints (ice-melting associated gradients). The influence of the seasonal variability of food sources on 2 dominant filter-feeding bivalves (Astarte moerchi and Mya truncata) was also investigated. Results revealed the critical impact of long sea ice/snow cover conditions prevailing in Young Sound corresponding to a period of extremely poor and degraded POM and SOM.”
The canton of Valais in Switzerland features ten of the 12 highest summits in the Alps. Alpine photographer Fiona Bunn’s 2019 calendar includes many of these 4,000-meter peaks found in Valais. Her images, all captured this past year, include the largest glacier in the Alps. The Aletsch is situated in the Bernese Alps and is 23 kilometers long.
Fifty kilometers south, is the Grenz glacier, which flows between the Monte Rosa and Lyskamm mountains of the Pennine Alps.
Bunn recently reflected on changing mountain landscapes in a guest post to GlacierHub: “My hope is that new John Muirs and Ansel Adams will arise, who encourage aesthetic appreciation and conservation of these sacred places. We may not be able to reverse a climate catastrophe, but we can be aware of those documenting change and supportive of the indigenous communities with creative solutions and investment.”
There is a special discount of 10 percent for GlacierHub readers. The alpine calendar is printed on premium photo paper, size 30 x 20 cms (A4). Price £9.99 P&P UK £5, ROW £7. To receive the special discount order via email@example.com. Payment either by Paypal or invoicing via direct transfer or check. All images copyright Fi Photos.
Fiona Bunn is a British and Swiss alpine photographer. For more of Fiona Bunn’s work, visit her website at www.fiphotos.org.
A recent study on the Borgne d’Arolla, a glacier-fed stream in the Swiss Alps, shows that there is less biodiversity among macroinvertebrates than expected in the summer and higher biodiversity than expected in the winter. Chrystelle Gabbud, a geologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and her associates, found that the rates of streambed disturbance in the Borgne d’Arolla were also much more frequent than normal observations of disturbance in glacial rivers, even during times of peak discharge. The team’s results were published in September in Science of the Total Environment and attribute the above biodiversity inversion phenomenon to the increased frequency of flushing events.
Why is it that glacier-fed rivers in the Alps are experiencing even more flushing events? Evidence points toward the impacts of global climate change, as rising temperatures influence increased glacial melting and sediment production during the summer months, which in turn means that flushing must be facilitated more often.
Summertime runoff in glacier-fed Alpine rivers is exceptionally useful for supplying water for hydroelectric power production. The flow of water is abstracted at water intakes, which hold back both water and sediment, functioning similarly to dams but on a smaller scale. Intakes also have a relatively low threshold for how much sediment can accumulate before they must be flushed. This means that in basins with high erosion, namely glaciated basins, this flushing happens more frequently. In the summer months, when glacial melt is at its peak, flushing of water intakes can occur up to several times a day. Flushing disrupts the streambed, increases water turbidity, contributes to river aggradation, and negatively affects the macroinvertebrate community both in abundance and biodiversity.
Gabbud and fellow researchers collected samples of macroinvertebrates (animals that do not have a backbone but that are large enough to be seen with the naked eye, such as crustaceans, worms and aquatic insects) at several locations over the course of two years (2016 and 2017) to determine the impacts of flushing water intakes on species biodiversity and abundance. The surrounding tributaries served as controls for the Borgne. The researchers’ findings effectively contradicted the normal expectations for seasonal biodiversity changes.
Normal biodiversity expectations anticipate that both species richness and abundance should be higher during the summer months, from June to September, which also correspond to the highest water temperatures. However, Gabbud and her team found that biodiversity of macroinvertebrate populations in the Borgne d’Arolla during winter months (and coldest water temperatures) was comparable to the expected levels for the surrounding tributaries during the spring and summer. The Borgne was found to be mostly devoid of life in the summer months, a result which the researchers primarily attribute to the high frequency of flushings.
The team also compared observations in 2016 to those in 2017. Variations in flushing frequency and duration between the two years led Gabbud and her associates to two determinations. One, that more flushing had a direct negative impact on the presence of macroinvertebrate biodiversity and abundance. Two, that flushings with shorter duration also correlated with higher rates of streambed disturbance.
In addition, they found that as the frequency of flushing decreased, macroinvertebrate populations started to return. Outside of the summer months, flushing happens much less frequently. In a four-day period between flushes, biodiversity was almost able to reach pre-disturbance levels.
The researchers’ observations led them to recommend that the frequency of flushing at the water intakes be decreased and the duration of flushing be increased. They stipulate that higher magnitude flushings, resulting from taking too much time between events, could also have negative impacts. Thus, this situation creates a tension between maintaining hydropower and maintaining biodiversity, a major policy issue.
Currently, Switzerland has a single set of regulations regarding mitigating impacts and restoring ecological areas being used for hydropower generation. There are provisions related to sediment management; however, guidance provided by the Swiss National Government does not mention water intakes by name, instead only addressing dams and maintaining sedimentconnection.
Seeing as water intakes govern over 50 percent “of hydropower impacted rivers by basin area” in the Swiss Alps, Gabbud and her team emphasize that future regulations must incorporate both sedimentmanagement and flow management.
You might have heard from your Italian friend complaining about the scorching heat in Europe this past summer. But how did the glaciers react? In the Ötztal region of the Italian Alps, an antique bicycle showed up after Rotmoosferner Glacier melted at 3,000 meters. Scientists estimate that there has been an accelerating trend of glacier retreat in the region where the glacier is located. Where did the bicycle come from? It might be related to the vigorous smuggling business between the Austrian and Italian border after World War II.
This Photo Friday, view images of Rotmoosferner Glacier’s retreat and the surprise find of the antique bicycle.
As another scorching summer in the Northern Hemisphere comes to an end, alpine hikers are preparing for an unfamiliar tourism restraint on Mont Blanc, the Alp’s highest peak, beginning next climbing season. The mountain, which straddles France and Italy, faces a cap on climbing issued by the French government. This new policy intends to permanently limit the number of mountaineers ascending the 4,810-meter summit from the Royal Route, Mont Blanc’s busiest climbing route which begins in France.
As reported by The Telegraph, the Royal Route is currently used by three-fourths of the adventure seekers who attempt to reach the peak each year. Starting next summer, the French government will half the number of climbers, allowing only 214 climbers per day. This decision was made after a surge of adventure seekers, some ill-prepared for the alpine challenge, resulted in sixteen deaths this past summer. The deaths were largely caused by avalanches and rockfalls during the final ascent, with such hazards likely to increase under the current global warming trajectory.
Mont Blanc, with its magnificent glacial sceneries and relatively climbable, well-marked trail, has become the center of modern alpine tourism since the first ascent of the mountain in 1786. Today it remains one of the most popular climbs in the world, with thousands of tourists traversing its trails and visiting its campgrounds each year. But among landscapes, alpine and glacier environments are increasingly fragile under changing climates. Mont Blanc is not an exception, with the effects of climate change progressively more noticeable.
“When I repeated climbs [in the Alps] after more than a decade, these changes were very clear,” Arnaud Temme, a geographer at Kansas State University and an experienced climber, shared with GlacierHub. “It is sad when beautiful bright ice is replaced by wide expanses of rock and rubble.”
One of the most popular attractions on Mont Blanc, the glacier Mer de Glace, sits on the northern slope of the massif. Luc Moreau, a glaciologist, recently told The Guardian that the glacier “is now melting at the rate of around 40 meters a year and has lost 80m in depth over the last 20 years alone.” A visible consequence of the retreating Mer de Glace snout is that 100m of ladders have been fixed against newly exposed vertical rock walls for hikers to climb down the glacier.
As a seasoned climber, Temme talked to GlacierHub about the impact of the changes he has witnessed on the mountain. “I’ve climbed in the European Alps for decades, and there is no doubt that climbing and high hiking routes are getting more dangerous,” he said. “I’ve been in tight spots several times due to glacial retreat or permafrost degradation, and have experienced declines in the quality of routes much more often.” He added that it takes more energy and attention as a climber to cross fields of loose rock than to cross a glacier.
According to Temme’s research and his own experiences of “getting into trouble” on the mountain, the conclusion is clear that conditions are becoming riskier.
“Since the 1990s, guidebook authors and their informants have started describing conditions that are more dangerous for climbers. Increased levels of rockfall were the main culprit— directly linked to climate change and permafrost retreat. Many routes are no longer even described in guidebooks, to prevent climbers from risking their lives on them,” he said.
It is indisputable that the rapid glacial melting and frozen ground thawing are causing a shrinkage of the snowy landscapes. In alpine areas, glacial retreat is always accompanied by more rock exposure. As the stability of the glacier is reduced as it melts, the chance of rocks falling and posing deadly threats to climbers increases. Between 2007 and 2017, more than 570 rockfalls occurred on the Mont Blanc massif, with the number of people killed increasing each year.
Given these risks, the future of alpine tourism looks bleak. Temme thinks glaciers will continue their retreat to higher altitudes. “Glacial tourism in some lower locations will become impossible, and it will become more expensive in others. Alpine climbs involving glaciers will have to be adapted, rerouted and, in some cases, abandoned like others already have,” he said.
Raoul Kaenzig, a climate researcher from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, told GlacierHub, “Mountains are spaces of freedom and should remain so as much as possible. I would focus on the prevention and the education of the tourists instead of prohibiting access by law. Restrictions measures should be kept only for extreme cases, like Mont Blanc.”
The fragile dynamics at Mont Blanc are also at work in other mountain ranges, Temme warned. For example, the Olympic Mountains in the U.S. state of Washington and the Southern Alps in New Zealand, both popular with climbers, have a great deal of glacier ice and are experiencing substantial climate change. As the planet warms, climbers to the world’s highest peaks will have to adapt to new mountain landscapes and the rising risks associated with glacier retreat.
From Bloomberg: “This summer’s exceptionally hot weather has seen the south peak of Kebnekaise lose the crown as Sweden’s highest point… The south peak measured 2,097 meters (6,879 feet) above sea level on July 31, down from 2,101 meters on July 2, according to data from the Tarfala research station. The north peak is 2,096.8 meters high, and the research station estimates that it overtook the south peak as Sweden’s highest point on Aug. 1 as the melting has continued.”
Find out more about glacier melting on Sweden’s highest mountain here.
Melting of Maliy Aktru Glacier Reveals Primary Ecological Succession
In Wiley’s Journal for Ecology and Evolution: “Plants, microorganisms (bacteria and fungi), and soil elements along a chronosequence in the first 600m of the Maliy Aktru glacier’s forefront (Altai Mountains, Russia) were surveyed… Plant succession shows clear signs of changes along the incremental distance from the glacier front. The development of biological communities and the variation in geochemical parameters represent an irrefutable proof that climate change is altering soils that have been long covered by ice.”
Read more about glacier retreat in the Altai Mountains here.
Anthropogenic Influence on Primary Succession in Alps
From the 6th Symposium for Research in Protected Areas: “Glacier forelands are ideal ecosystems to study community assembly processes… This study focuses on possible anthropogenic influences on these primary successions. Floristic data of three glacier forelands show that anthropogenic influences in form of (i) grazing sheep and (ii) hiking trails are creating patterns, visible in the floristic community composition and in change of species numbers. (iii) Additionally, it was found that the special protected area ‘Inneres Untersulzbachtal,’ where grazing has been absent for decades didn’t show any of these patterns, underlining the importance of process-protection in glacier forelands, as one of the last truly wild ecosystems in central Europe.”
Discover the anthropogenic influences on primary successions in glacier forelands here.
Do you prefer going to the beach or the mountains? This simple icebreaker aims to provide insight into one’s personality or interests. For mountain lovers, it’s a question that may also evoke a dramatic landscape with snow-capped peaks reminiscent of those found on the Instagram page of National Geographic Adventure, for example, where mountaineers are captured undertaking challenges that test the limits of human capability.
What is critical but often overlooked are the high-altitude shelters that protect adventurers and tourists on their treks. Hikers and climbers today typically rely on tents and other camping gear, but earlier generations sought shelter in more permanent structures or huts. A recent study by architectural historians Roberto Dini and Stefano Girodo explores how the design and construction of huts in the Western Alps in the late eighteenth through nineteenth century was a milestone in the exploration of the Alps. The construction of shelters offering overnight accommodations made it possible for explorers to undertake wide-ranging scientific explorations in the Alps for the first time. Unlike existing housing models, these huts were usually simple—carved into rock surfaces or leaning against them, providing the minimum needs for protection against what explorers saw as a hostile and frightening alpine environment.
Prior to the construction of these huts, mountains represented “an insurmountable barrier to discovering areas at higher altitudes,” according to the study. The researchers state that such shelters “in the most inhospitable areas of Europe” represent the “progressive transformation of the alpine region from sharp construct into an outpost of scientific learning, the ‘playground’ of mountaineers.”
The architectural structure of these first shelters present another dichotomy. The huts represented a safe space free from the harsh environment outside, a place where one could recharge before persevering the next day. And not only did the huts provide shelter, but they also gave visitors a psychological comfort with a brief chance to withdraw from the otherwise extreme non-human terrain.
Not mentioned in the article but interesting to note is the historical context surrounding the establishment of these shelters. When first constructed in France and Switzerland during the late 1700s, European high society was in the later periods of the Age of Enlightenment. A corresponding movement during the previous century was the Scientific Revolution, an era when the concept of modern science emerged with revolutions in scientific fields including mathematics, astronomy, physics, biology and chemistry. It appears logical that the intellectual heritage from the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment was under the same impulse that led to the expansion of studying astronomy in these remote regions. Additionally, it raises questions about who constructed these structures and the political dynamics that might have impacted the desire to expand into these regions. While, the Dini and Girodo study doesn’t address these questions, it sets the stage for further research to explore how the political and social perspectives influenced the design and use of alpine huts.
During the 1800s and 1900s, researchers and explorers could rely on the haven of shelters to plan more extended expeditions. These huts sparked curiosity among Enlightenment-induced scholars to study the not-well-understood glaciers and alpine landscape previously unattainable. But as a result, the introduction of shelters and exploration also led to an increased human intervention in the European Alps. According to the study, a consequence was the systematic physical alteration of the high-altitude region.
For scholars interested in the intersection between humans and the environment (and breaking the sharp dichotomy between the two), the authors indicate that high-altitude areas are “an ideal setting for testing a qualitative conciliation of the natural environment and human intervention.” In other words, alpine huts can be of interest to people not even working in mountain areas since they offer such a contrast between the natural environment and human interventions.
In recent decades, huts have even transformed from the historically crude and limited models to more luxurious structures that experiment with style and design. With the primary need for overnight shelter established, the building has become increasingly conceived as a place of short-term stay (whether overnight or a few nights) and a location for consumption of food and pleasure.
In the last twenty years, designers such as the ones behind the Monte Rosa Hut in Switzerland have responded to the surging interest in environmental questions and sustainability by incorporating energy-saving technology and rational resource management for isolated alpine refuges among glacierized terrains. Although still primarily serving as short-term housing and as protection against the elements, these newer shelters seek to enhance the outdoor experience for humans with interior designs that feature large windows and open floor plans. Earlier huts lacked windows, and this change reflects not only our improved technology and better heating but also our cultural shifts. Early on, humans perceived mountains as so hostile that they wanted to withdraw from them. Now, the Alps are a place of interest for people to explore and experience first-hand.
Despite the transformation of alpine shelters from simple design to luxurious spaces, two primary points remain unchanged throughout the last three centuries. First, visitors are still temporary. Whether they enter for a few hours or a couple of days, the structures reflect the come-and-go nature of tourism. Second, the reasons behind individuals occupying these shelters remain tied to the luxurious sphere of free time and pleasure. Certainly, the professional lens of Enlightenment-inspired scientific endeavors or today’s mountaineering expeditions have transformed the leisure activity into a professional occupation.
On the whole, the inhabitants of these shelters remain an elite group of predominantly white male individuals who continue to explore the heights of the world’s tallest mountains. The construction of alpine huts is a part of the history of white male privilege. But as these shelters transform from an image of stark refuge to more sustainable designs that celebrate (and market from) the surrounding environment, perhaps alpine shelters too may become more welcoming of a diverse team of scientists and explorers in glacierized environments.
Anomalous Stable Glaciers in the Karakoram Mountains
From Climate Dynamics: “Glaciers over the central Himalaya have retreated at particularly rapid rates in recent decades, while glacier mass in the Karakoram appears stable. To address the meteorological factors associated with this contrast, 36 years of Climate Forecast System Reanalyses (CFSR) are dynamically downscaled from 1979 to 2015 with the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model over High Mountain Asia at convection permitting grid spacing (6.7 km). In all seasons, CFSR shows an anti-cyclonic warming trend over the majority of High Mountain Asia, but distinctive differences are observed between the central Himalaya and Karakoram in winter and summer.”
Read more about the climatic differences between the central Himalaya and Karakoram here.
Microbial Differences of Two Andean Lakes
From Aquatic Microbiology: “The limnological signatures of Laguna Negra and Lo Encañado, two oligotrophic Andean lakes which receive water from Eucharren Glacier and are exposed to the same climatic scenario, were driven by the characteristics of the corresponding sub-watersheds. The abundance of phototrophic bacteria is a significant metabolic difference between the microbial communities of the lakes which is not correlated to the Chla concentration.”
Read more about microbial differences of two Andean lakes here.
Carabid Beetles in Norway
From Norwegian Journal of Entomology: “Nine species of carabid beetles (Coleoptera, Carabidae) were pitfall-trapped during two years in an alpine glacier foreland of southern Norway. A two-year (biennial) life cycle was documented for Nebria nivalis (Paykull, 1790), N. rufescens (Ström, 1768), and Patrobus septentrionis Dejean, 1828. This was based on the simultaneous hibernation of larvae and adults. In P. septentrionis, both larvae and adults showed a considerable activity beneath snow. A limited larval material of Amara alpina (Paykull, 1790) and A. quenseli (Schönherr, 1806) from the snow-free period indicated larval hibernation. A. quenseli was, however, not synchronized with respect to developmental stages, and its life cycle was difficult to interpret.”
Read more about the ecology of carabid beetles in an alpine glacier foreland here.
In a bid to preserve ice cores and valuable climate information from some of the world’s most endangered glaciers, scientists are creating a global ice archive sanctuary in Antarctica. The Ice Memory project is being led by the Université Grenoble Alpes Foundation.
From Mont Blanc Massif’s Col du Dôme glacier to the Illimani glacier in Bolivia, over 400 ice cores have been retrieved to be preserved in the ice bunker.
To learn more about Ice Memory, see the video below from the Université Grenoble Alpes Foundation:
From Journal of Climate: “Using a case study of Kilimanjaro, we combined twelve years of convection-permitting atmospheric modelling with an eight-year observational record to evaluate the impact of climate oscillations on recent high-altitude atmospheric variability during the short rains (the secondary rain season in the region). We focus on two modes that have a well-established relationship with precipitation during this season, the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Zonal Mode, and demonstrate their strong association with local and mesoscale conditions at Kilimanjaro.”
Read more about how climate mode variability contributes to changes in Kilimanjaro’s glaciers here.
Glacier Ride Cycling Event
From Climate Ride: “Glacier Ride is a 6-day charitable cycling event spanning two spectacular national parks and two countries — Glacier National Park on the U.S. side and Waterton National Park on the Canadian side. Glacier National Park captures the essence of what the pristine, undisturbed Rocky Mountain region has been like over thousands of years. This bike ride explores some of the wildest land in the lower 48 and an ecosystem threatened by development, climate change, and exotic species. By fundraising and participating in Glacier Ride, you are raising awareness of the issues facing Glacier and seeing first-hand what is at stake.”
Discover how you can participate in this exciting trip here.
Rescuing Migrants Fleeing Through the Frozen Alps
From The New York Times: “Vincent Gasquet is a pizza chef who owns a tiny shop in the French Alps. At night, he is one of about 80 volunteers who search mountain passes for migrants trying to hike from Italy to France. The migrants attempt to cross each night through sub-zero temperatures. Some wear only light jackets and sneakers, and one man recently lost his feet to frostbite. “If the Alps become a graveyard, I’ll be ashamed of myself for the rest of my life,” Mr. Gasquet said. The migrants often head for Montgenèvre, a ski town nestled against the border. France offers them more work and a chance at a better life.”
Glaciers and the mountains that convey them have come to symbolize purity— one which has been marred by glacial retreat. We long to return to a state in which glaciers aren’t retreating as a result of anthropogenic climate change, where the condition of the world aligns more closely with our belief in what it should be again. But, historically, glaciers and the mountains that convey them have also symbolized other, more insidious forms of purity.
In a recent article inGerman Studies Review, Wilfried Wilms outlines the ways in which a flurry of German films and novels in the 1930s recast the glacier-rich Alps and region of South Tyrol as traditional German living space. Wilms focuses on works produced between 1931 and 1936, a time when German nationalist discourse was on the rise and support of a greater pan-German alliance between Germany andmountainous Austria was gaining widespread currency in the lead-up to the Nazi takeover of 1933 and annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938. By locating German speakers within alpine settings and showcasing their natural affinity to mountain climbing and glacier landscapes, filmmakers and novelists contributed to a discourse that sought to integrate the greater Germanic world by establishing a common set of uniquely German traits.
In an interview with GlacierHub, Wilms described the roots of the notion of mountain and glacial purity in relation to both German racial and environmental ideals. “There is the discourse on elevation in Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra‘ on rising above the lowlands; ennobling the Self in its struggle with the mountains; the purity of snow and firn [an intermediate stage between snow and glacier ice], and its disconnectedness to the (soiled) realms below. After the defeat in World War I, the mountains become a place of individual, cultural and national renewal— a proving ground, a training ground for the youth and its future for Germany,” he said. Unlike “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which portrayed the horrors and banality of the first World War, German films after 1931 valorized war in ways that fed into the nation’s growing territorial ambitions.
Historically, the mountainous region of Tyrol had been home to a mostly German-speaking, Austrian population— that is, before Italian irredentists got in the way. With the Axis defeat at the close of the first World War, South Tyrol was formally ceded to Italy in the 1919 Treaty of Saint-Germain. Over the next decade, Mussolini instituted a series of Italianization programs in an effort to reduce the Germanic cultural sway in the region. These programs were well known to the public in Weimar Germany, and Wilms argues that a crisis emerged for Germans: as ideas of pan-Germanism were taking hold, their German-speaking brethren were being pushed out of their homeland, a place that was felt through its Alpine features to be distinctively German. A spate of cinematic and literary portrayals of the Alpine War, fought between Austrian and Italian troops in Tyrol during World War I, became a means through which the German population was mobilized and militarized in the lead-up to the second World War.
According to Noah Isenberg, a professor of culture and media at The New School, certain technical innovations also changed the way films were watched in Germany during this period. “In the early 1930s, thanks largely to the advent of sound (which came quite late to Germany), films tended to take advantage of recorded dialogue and elaborate musical scores. Berlin was known for its majestic picture palaces, with more than a thousand seats and ornate interiors, but in Germany’s smaller cities, audiences watched the films in mid-sized theaters, less grand in appearance and with more limited seating,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub. The stage was set for irredentist films to have a maximal impact on German society.
One work that Wilms analyzes in detail in his article is Luis Trenker’s 1931 film, “Berge in Flammen” (Mountains in Flames). Trenker was a native of South Tyrol, as well as an Alpine War hero, mountaineer, novelist, actor and director. “Berge in Flammen” opens with a visual ode to the Tyrolean Alps. One can easily imagine how a German audience would have been transfixed by the spectacle: the camera first muses over billowing clouds, then transitions to a frontal shot of a looming mountain before following dense waves of fog as they drift through the spaces between stark stone cliffs. Even in 1930s black and white, the landscapes are mesmerizing.
Enter the film’s hero, played by Trenker himself, a confident rope in hand as he leads the way up a precipitous rock face, undaunted by the thousand-foot drop that outlines his figure. As he climbs further up the impossible height, the camera focuses in on his muscled legs and steady hands. The Austrian reaches a small platform where he pauses to pull up his climbing companion’s rope. His climbing partner, an Italian, then begins his own ascent, but he quickly loses his grip and careens down the rock face. The camera pans quickly to Trenker’s hands as they grip the rope that separates his friend from certain death. Then the camera pans again, this time to a close-up of Trenker’s determined face as he grits his teeth, holding fast to the rope as he selflessly risks his own life to save his companion.
As Wilms persuasively argues, scenes like these come to place German speakers firmly within an environment dominated by mountains and glaciers, places in which Italians are decidedly not at home. “Berge in Flammen” is filled with stunning shots of the snow-laden Alps, their glaciers appearing voluptuous and pure. Austrian glacial fortresses are bombarded by Italian shells, and explosions of smoke and snow crash across the mountaintops, but in having to enact this destruction, the Italians further reveal their unbelonging. Where the Italians work against the mountains, the Austrians work with them.
According to Wilms, films from “Berge in Flammen” onward differ from the climbing epics of Arnold Fanck, Trenker’s mentor and the progenitor of the German “Mountain Film” genre. While Fanck’s films were centered on the struggle between man and mountain, Trenker’s films found their antagonists in exogenous non-Germans attempting to live in German-speaking lands. “Trenker juxtaposes topophilic depictions of place – in his case, his homeland of South Tyrol – with almost xenophobic depictions of dubious intruders, generally city people, tourists, and business men. These topophilic attachments lend themselves to national or nationalistic extensions,” Wilms said.
The return of South Tyrol to German control was a priority for Hitler in “Mein Kampf,” and a collection of important writers also propagated this view. Some of the titles from the period are telling: novels with names like “Comrades of the Mountains” (1932), “Heroes of the Mountains” (1935), “TheFortress in the Glacier” (1935), and “War Diary of a Mountain Climber” (1936)populate the German literary scene of the 1930s. German speakers are portrayed within this corpus as the native, original inhabitants of these mountain realms. Tyrol’s mountains are portrayed as eternal in the way that the German bloodstream is felt to be eternal.
Glaciers, we know, are not eternal. But it is important to pause and reflect on the nature of our discourse about glaciers and how our ideals of purity can be turned in horrifying directions. According to Andrew Denning, a professor of German history at the University of Kansas, Germany’s race-based nationalism emerged through notions of the poetic grandeur of nature itself.
“Romantic artists and thinkers laid the groundwork for the shift in the perception of the mountains in the late 18th and early 19th century from fearsome to awe-inspiring,” Denning said. “Romantics celebrated the spirituality of nature and saw in ancient, imposing mountain landscapes the physical manifestation of their critique of Enlightened hubris. Simultaneously, Romantics spoke of mystical, spiritual communities defined by common history and culture, laying the foundation for the rise of cultural forms of nationalism over the course of the nineteenth century.” Our own U.S. national parks— spaces of exclusion in their own way— were born of that same Romantic spirit, after all.