A Cap on Climbers at Mont Blanc

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.

Pointing at the 3842m height of Mont Blanc (Source: Masin/Flickr).

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.

Arnaud Temme climbs Mont Blanc from a harder route to avoid the “traffic jam” on the overcrowded Royal Route (Source: Arnaud Temme).

“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.

The Mer De Glace has retreated at least 80 meters in depth over the years. Climbers now have to ascend steep ladders to reach the icy areas (Source: Theodore/Flickr).

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.

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Video of the Week: Ice Memory

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:

Discover more glacier news at GlacierHub:

Irrigation a Potential Driver of Glacial Advance in Asia

Glacier Researchers Gather at IPCC Meeting in Ecuador

Discovery of a Major Medieval Glacier Lake in Svalbard

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Photo Friday: Mer de Glace, a “Sea of Ice”

The French Alps lie just about an hour and thirty minutes away from the heart of Geneva. I thought of visiting Chamonix, home of the famous Mont Blanc, after a conference at the United Nations. Though, what I didn’t know was that I could visit the equally majestic Mer de Glace, or “Sea of Ice” in English, a valley glacier on the northern slopes of the Mont Blanc Massif.

I was lucky enough to visit Mer de Glace in the winter outside of peak season. That meant the cable car heading up the slopes actually had seats available. It also meant that I could take breathtaking photos of this winter wonderland without being disturbed. I was in such awe of Mer de Glace that I completely forgot to put my gloves on! I was too focused on capturing the moment. As my hands fell numb, I ran inside the gift shop and waited for the cable car to return. On the way down, I couldn’t help but wonder how long such a magnificent glacier would last. I had suddenly remembered the tour guide explaining earlier that the glacier has been melting and that we were lucky to have seen so much snow.

Upon researching, I came to realize that the glacier was in fact disappearing. The ice has melted so quickly over the past 30 years that it now takes around 370 steps to get down to the ice. In 1988 it took only three steps. Between 2014 and 2015 alone Mer de Glace has lost 3.61 meters of ice. To make matters worse, reports have indicated 40 percent less snowfall over the past 50 years in the region. All over the world glaciers are melting as a result of changing climate. Tourists like myself are left wondering how many more generations will be able to witness the majesty of the French Alps. Will my generation be the last?

This Photo Friday, join me on an eye-opening journey through the snowy mountainside of Mont Blanc.

The quiet town of Chamonix, France (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

 

At the heart of the town of Chamonix, you’ll find a statue of Michel Paccard. Paccard was a doctor and mountain climber. This monument is dedicated to his ascent of Mont Blanc alongside Jaque Balmat in 1786 (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

 

The author standing on the bridge to the cable car leading up to Mer de Glace (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

 

Mer de Glace (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

 

The mountain landscape through which Mer de Glace flows (Source: Brian Poe Llamanzares).

Click here to find out more about the tour I booked in Chamonix.

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Roundup: Photographers, skiers and pollen-counters

Landscape photographer uncovers the beauty of mother nature

“Mother Nature’s show is fickle, fleeting and often demanding. As an emerging landscape photographer, I am quickly learning the emergency-of-now; how once-in-a-lifetime moments are immediately lost if not acted upon. There is no safe, warm studio to snuggle up in and no way to get the content without being outside, in the land, surrounded by the elements and forced to contend with the kindness, fury and temperament of Mother Nature. Simply put, if I do not show up (and react to impulses) I will not get the photograph. 

This emergency-of-now is also inherent in the translation of a photograph that can project the voice of the land. It is my wish that the land’s call for help, glory and cognizance will be heard far and wide via whatever community flows from my photographs, be it a gallery’s walls, a website, a magazine, airplane seat conversations and for the one-on-one conversation between my partner and I as we stand somewhere far from home, snapping shots and swimming in awe — feeling the urgency to expose the encounter while pushing “POST” to our Facebook feed via a rented hotspot connection.”

Mendenhall Glacier by Jodi Patterson

Read more about the story, click here.

Slalom course for ski areas facing future without snow

“Grenoble (France) (AFP) – As temperatures rise there is less [snow] or sometimes even none at all — global warming is forcing ski areas to think about the once unthinkable, a future without snow. Some in the French Alps have gone beyond thinking and begun diversifying the activities they offer visitors, particularly those at around 1,300 metres (4,300 feet) altitude.”

“According to Educ’Alpes, the glaciers have lost 26 percent of their surface and a third of their volume over the past 40 years, leading ski areas like Val Thorens to close its glacier to skiers a decade ago to ensure its protection.”

Read more about the news here.

Recent and Holocene climate change controls on vegetation and carbon accumulation in Alaskan coastal muskegs

“Pollen, spore, macrofossil and carbon data from a peatland near Cordova, Alaska, reveal insights into the climate–vegetation–carbon interactions from the initiation of the Holocene, c. the last 11.5 ka, to the present (1 ka = 1000 calibrated years before present where 0 = 1950 CE). “

“Highlight of the research:

  • Early Holocene deglaciation leads to foundation species Alnus dominance.
  • Climate-driven vegetational change drives carbon storage in southeast Alaskan bogs.
  • Sphagnum peat drives highest rates of carbon accumulation (50 g/m2/a).
  • Mid-Holocene dry climate favors sedge and low carbon accumulation (13 g/m2/a).
  • Last century of Alnus expansion signals glacial retreat with 2 °C warming.”
Dandelion flower Stigma with Pollen, Flickr
Dandelion flower stigma with pollen, Flickr

Read more about the research here.

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