Glaciers, Geoheritage and Geotourism

Painting of The Great Eiger, as seen from Wengernalp in Valais (Source: Maximilien de Meuron/Creative Commons).
Painting of The Great Eiger, as seen from Wengernalp in Valais (Source: Maximilien de Meuron/Creative Commons).

The Valais in southern Switzerland is a mountainous canton that draws tourists each year for its spectacular scenery, including some of the largest glaciers in the central Alps. From a recent article written by Emmanual Reynard in Geoheritage and Geotourism, we learn that more than half of the canton’s workforce are employed by the tourism sector. Valais has long been a tourist hub in Switzerland, attracting sightseers and skiers to the two alpine ranges that lie on either side of the canton. This landscape played an important role in European art and literature, and Valais is also known as a key site for the development of glaciology. Tourists venture to the province not only for a glimpse of frosted peaks such as the famous Matterhorn and Weisshorn, but also to engage with the canton’s long history of geotourism and geoheritage which dates back to the 1800s. 

Winter Tourism, 1900-1910 - Mediatheque Valais
Winter tourism in Valais, 1900-1910 (Source: Mediatheque Valais).

The word geoheritage originates from the term “geological heritage,” and is defined by the diversity of geological features within a region. The Geological Society of America (GSA) applies the term to scientifically and educationally significant sites or areas with geologic features such as distinctive rocks, minerals and landforms. Geotourism is the exploration of such places.

Sarah Strauss, an anthropologist at the University of Wyoming, has conducted extensive research in the Valais region. She believes that geoheritage is “very similar to landscape and a sense of place that is specific to the geologic rather than the broader environmental context.” Moreover, geoheritage is valuable because it permits geotourism. Canton Valais’s long history with tourism has reinforced its status as a geotourism hot-spot as climbers and hikers come to experience this glacial history for themselves.  

Painting depicting geotourism, 1868 (Source: Médiathèque Valais).
Painting depicting geotourism, 1868 (Source: Médiathèque Valais).

As the GSA explains, “geological sites are critical to advancing knowledge about natural hazards, groundwater supply, soil processes, climate and environmental changes, evolution of life, mineral and energy supplies, and other aspects of the nature and history of Earth.” These sites should be protected and cherished for their natural beauty and importance. The tourism industry in Valais continues to celebrate its geoheritage through geotourism.

The complex geology of Valaisthe result of uplift and compression when the Alps first formed 20 to 40 million years ago has made it a site of geoheritage throughout the centuries. Today, tourists and hikers can view crystalline and carbonate rocks formed millions of years ago on trails rising 800 to over 4,200 meters in elevation. Moreover, the region contains glacial valleys and horn peaks, as well as moraines, the masses of dirt and rocks deposited by glaciers.

The Aletsch region of Valais is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is heralded as a site of outstanding natural and cultural importance. This region makes up the most glaciated part of the High Alps along with Jungfrau and Bietschhorn. The Aletsch is also home to the largest glacier in Europe. “While the Matterhorn is impressive, the Aletsch region is equally remarkable,” Strauss recalled to GlacierHub. “There were chapels and hotels built at the tongue of the glaciers.”

Chapel (lower left quadrant) was built in 19th c. next to glacier in Dalatal. By 2003, it was far from the remnants of the same glacier (the upper right quadrant) (Source: Sarah Strauss).

Tourists that journey to Canton Valais will not be disappointed by the geologically significant province which embraces its geoheritage wholeheartedly. If you are unable to make the journey to Switzerland any time soon, enjoy pictures from the Valais tourism website here.

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Teaching Geology Through Climbing

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A map of the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province in Italy (Source: Gigillo83/Creative Commons).

Learning by doing can be an effective educational tool. Irene Bollati et al. discovered this to be true while researching climbing as a way to educate students about earth science in the glacier-rich Italian Alps. Their findings were featured in a recent article in the Journal of the Virtual Explorer, in which they describe how climbing teaches young people about processes like weathering and glacial retreat.

For their research, Bollati et al. looked specifically at the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola Province in the western Italian Alps, where there is a long tradition of mountaineering. As the most northern province in Italy’s Piedmont region, the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola is located in a subduction zone in which the Eurasian and African plates collide. Mountain chains like the Alps are an ideal location for education, because they contain geosites, places where many geological and geomorphological processes are exposed in a relatively small area. By finding these locations on which to climb, younger generations can be inspired to learn and become more invested in the preservation of the site’s features.

Finding geosites typically has one of two goals, according to Bollati et al. The first is geosite conservation when the site is rare and at risk of degradation. The second is earth science dissemination in cases where the site is valuable for educational purposes. In the latter, it is important that the site’s usage for educational purposes not put its scientific integrity at risk. In their study, Bollati et al. focused on methodology to find the most valuable geosites which meet both goals.

Specifically, the researchers focused on a pilot educational project, in which they assessed 100 13 and 14-year-old students from four schools about 80 km from the study region. The project sought to identify the most suitable climbing locations and best mountain cliffs on which students could learn about earth science and geoheritage. According to Bollati et al., geoheritage includes earth features and processes that should be sustained, conserved or managed for their natural heritage value. To determine these regions, Bollati et al. relied on eight major criteria including accessibility, rock cliff quality, and the presence of evident and active hazards. In total, they analyzed 59 crags using the eight major criteria, further dividing those crags into sub-locations.

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The subduction zones in Europe (Source: Woudloper/Creative Commons).

In total, the study pinpointed 14 sub-locations or “geodiversity” sites in the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province best suited for hiking and climbing. Subduction-collision zones like the Alps are excellent examples of geodiversity sites due to the many different types of rocks found within narrow areas. “Geodiversity,” a term first introduced in 1993, can be understood as the equivalent of biodiversity for geology, according to a paper by Murray Gray. It includes all geological, geomorphological, and soil features. It also encompasses their properties, relationships, and systems, according to Bollati et al.

The researchers defined three categories of geodiversity: extrinsic geodiversity (geodiversity of a region in comparison with other regions), regional intrinsic geodiversity (within a region), and geodiversity of a single site. The best examples of these processes and resulting features are called “geodiversity sites.” The most valuable of these for geoconservation are referred to as “geosites” and form the “geoheritage” of a region.

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A view of the Italian Alps (Source: A. Duarte/Flickr).

In the Verbano-Cusio-Ossola province, students can observe several important signs of glaciation. For example, rock slopes along the Ossola Valley and in the tributary valleys demonstrate glacial modeling. In addition, the researchers used rock samples and virtual methods to introduce the students to the three major rock families, igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary, as well as the geomorphology of the cliffs.  

Bollati et al. also used videos of climbers along three selected routes to help students learn where climbers were finding foot- and hand-holds. The hope was that students would become curious and ask questions about how the rocks formed. However, the authors found that the videos served better as support than as a substitute for the hands-on learning about earth science that climbing provides. By physically climbing the peaks, students learn first-hand how different climates and rock types impact the Earth.

In their study, Bollati et al. confirmed that students can more effectively learn by doing, understanding earth science better by identifying the more suitable locations on which to climb. Their findings encourage future generations interested in geology and conservation to find inspiration while climbing mountains.

 

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