Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron took the tram from the Alpine resort of Chamonix up to Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain, to pay homage to the legendary massif and reflect on the toll climate change is exacting on its great glacier, the Mer de Glace. The President dined at Mont Blanc’s base with climate scientists; peered from the mountain’s northern slopes down upon the jagged crags of ice doppling the immense—albeit shrinking—valley glacier; and walked in blue tunnels, which course the Mer de Glace’s innards.
The glacier has shrunk more than 200 feet in depth (65 meters) and almost 1,000 feet in length (300 meters) since 1996. “What we see with this glacier melting is irrefutable evidence of global warming,” Macron said after visiting Mer de Glace.
The visit coincided with Macron’s announcement of numerous environmental policies aimed at combating the climate crisis. These ranged from the promise of the French government to stop purchasing single-use plastics in July, to the creation of a new agency—the French Office of Biodiversity—tasked with the stewardship of the country’s ecosystems.
More pertinent to Mont Blanc and the Mer de Glace was the announcement of a new nature preserve ringing the mountain and a raft of new rules on limiting the number of climbers that can access the summit of Europe’s highest peak. Around 30,000 people attempt to summit the almost 16,000 foot (4,800 meters) peak each year and leave it strewn with garbage.
Jean-Marc Peillex, the mayor of Saint Gervais—a town near Mont Blanc—sent Macron a letter last fall lamenting the polluted state of the mountain and the “oddballs” responsible for it. Last year a British Royal Marine veteran tried to summit Mont Blanc while carrying a rowing machine—a stunt intended to raise money for charity. The climb sapped his strength, however, so he descended without it, leaving the hulking exercise machine high on the mountain. Local authorities said they will have to use a helicopter to get it down.
“It is all well and good to worry about the Amazon rainforest, but to ignore what is happening on Mont Blanc and to allow this disrespect to continue is intolerable,” wrote Peillex.
These new policies and the visit to Mont Blanc are part of Macron’s larger effort to stake the second half of his term on climate and the environment. Some view the controversial President’s climate change combating ambitions at odds with his investment banking past and business friendly policies, but he thinks the two are compatible.
Speaking before scientists and members of the French Ministry of Ecology at Chamonix after his visit, he declared that the fight to curb climate change and protect biodiversity was “a fight for our own survival” but added that “we need to show that this strategy is compatible with economic progress because this is the strategy in which I believe.”
World Meteorological Organization says sea level rise accelerating, fed by land ice melting
From the World Meteorological Organization: “The amount of ice lost annually from the Antarctic ice sheet increased at least six-fold, from 40 Gt per year in 1979-1990 to 252 Gt per year in 2009-2017.
The Greenland ice sheet has witnessed a considerable acceleration in ice loss since the turn of the millennium.
For 2015-2018, the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) reference glaciers indicates an average specific mass change of −908 mm water equivalent per year, higher than in all other five-year periods since 1950.”
The “dramatically changing landscape” of Mer de Glace
From New Scientist: “About a century ago, women with boaters and parasols sat near the Montenvers train station above the glacier, which then was almost level with a tongue of jagged ice snaking into the distance. Today, visitors are greeted by a slightly sad and largely grey glacier that is about 100 metres lower.”
An interdisciplinary analysis of changes in the high Andes
From Regional Environmental Change: “The high tropical Andes are rapidly changing due to climate change, leading to strong biotic community, ecosystem, and landscape transformations. While a wealth of glacier, water resource, and ecosystem-related research exists, an integrated perspective on the drivers and processes of glacier, landscape, and biota dynamics is currently missing. Here, we address this gap by presenting an interdisciplinary review that analyzes past, current, and potential future evidence on climate and glacier driven changes in landscape, ecosystem and biota at different spatial scales.
Our analysis indicates major twenty-first century landscape transformations with important socioecological implications which can be grouped into (i) formation of new lakes and drying of existing lakes as glaciers recede, (ii) alteration of hydrological dynamics in glacier-fed streams and high Andean wetlands, resulting in community composition changes, (iii) upward shifts of species and formation of new communities in deglaciated forefronts,(iv) potential loss of wetland ecosystems, and (v) eventual loss of alpine biota.”
Mont Blanc, which means “white mountain,” is the tallest mountain in the Alps at 15,772 feet. It stands between Italy and France in the Graian Alps, a mountain range located near the western side of the Alps. Mont Blanc is also known to be the deadliest mountain in Europe. Mer De Glace glacier sits at the top of Mont Blanc. Mer De Glace means “Sea of Ice” and is considered to be the largest and longest glacier in France.
A paramount scene in “Frankenstein” is when Victor ascends Mont Blanc to assuage his melancholy spirit aside the Mer De Glace glacier. Victor believes, “The sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnising my mind, and causing me to forget the passing cares of life.” Upon reaching the summit of Mont Blanc and carefully crossing the Mer De Glace, he further acknowledges, “My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy.”
As Victor basks in the glory of the glacial sublime, he notices a man bounding toward him with “superhuman speed.” While Victor’s crossing of the ice had been difficult and time-consuming, the creature running toward him “bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution.” Victor understands the creature to have murdered his young brother and framed an innocent friend who was subsequently hanged for her crimes.
It is here, on the Mer De Glace, where Victor experiences the divine. He recalls how the glacier fills him with “sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy.” Victor’s emotional state vacillates on the ice; moving through gratitude and awe to terror and fear. He is all things at once, representing the omnipotent and totalizing ways of God. Through his actions, we see how Victor struggles with his comprehension of the divine, just as he struggles crossing the ice of the Mer De Glace. While on the ice, he reflects on his own attempt at being Creator and the monster he produced as a result.
This Video of the Week takes you for a white-knuckle freeski of the Mer de Glace, France’s largest glacier. Sam Favret’s short film “Ice Call” was a finalist at the New York Wild Film Festival in 2018. Favret first takes us above the Chamonix with a stunning aerial of the Mont Blanc mountains. Audio of glaciers cracking like cannon fire accompanies an impressive panorama as a skier mentally steels himself before dropping in. After a Requiem For a Dream-esque cut of the sights and sounds of a glacier’s interior― the action begins. You’ll find yourself tucking your elbows in as the skier navigates narrow chutes and spins into a light-less glacial cave. Acrobatic inversions, rotations, and icy wall rides are artfully integrated in a free flowing ride as natural as the glacier itself.
You’ll want to ensure your audio is turned up for this:
Interested in climbing Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak? You might have to get in line.
Starting next year, France will impose a daily cap of 214 climbers while climbing the “White Mountain” to limit overcrowding and lower chances of fatalities. Higher temperatures at higher altitudes have created a risky environment for climbers as thawing grounds increase the threat of rockfalls. At least 16 people have died so far this year.
“It’s a tough decision but a very good one, because Mont Blanc is a climb unlike any other. You have to be prepared,” Mayor Jean-Marc Peillex of Saint Gervais (the Alpine town where the most popular climbing route up the mountain begins) told AFP.
Many routes up the mountain traverse Mont Blanc’s glaciers. On the busy “Royal Route,” for example, travelers have to cross the glacier du Tacul on the Mont Blanc du Tacul mountain. The Mer de Glace, or “Sea of Ice,” is another significant glacier near the summit, which has also melted and shrunk due to higher temperatures caused by climate change.
The new limits were announced after a series of meetings over the weekend between local officials, France’s mountain police brigade, the French mountaineering federation, and guide associations. Police have begun requiring aspiring climbers to reserve one of the refuges on the route before letting them proceed.
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.
Click here to find out more about the tour I booked in Chamonix.
Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frankenstein. For several days in June 1816, the young English writer Mary Godwin and her lover (and future husband), the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, were staying near a mansion, the Villa Diodati, in the village of Cologny on the shores of Lake Geneva, where the poet Lord Byron and a physician, John Polidori, were spending the summer and fall. Unable to venture outside the mansion for long because of the cold stormy weather, they read ghost stories and proposed a challenge: each would write a ghost story of their own. A conference is being held in Cologny to mark this anniversary.
She later reported her experience after going to bed on the night of June 16. Writing in the preface to the third edition of the book she began soon after, she stated:
“Either in a dream, or in some kind of half-trance, I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, —I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”
The book that sprang from this vision is Frankenstein, published in 1818, after the marriage of the author and Shelley. In it, the student of the unhallowed arts was Victor Frankenstein. The phantasm of a man was the monster, nameless in the book, but known in popular culture as Frankenstein. The novel has been celebrated as the first work of science fiction. Many people know if through the film versions, including the classic 1931 version, in which Boris Karloff plays the monster.
Mary Godwin conceived the story of the scientist and the monster he created in June 1816, but it was not until a month later that she and Shelley, traveling through the Alps on foot and on muleback, would see a glacier—the Mer de Glace, the Ice-sea, France’s greatest ice field and one of the largest in the Alps—that would serve as setting for a key scene in the book, an encounter between the scientist and his creation.
Early chapters of the novel related how Victor Frankenstein recognized the creature’s horrifying nature soon after he made him, and rejected him. The monster, angry at Frankenstein for abandoning him, wandered for some time and then killed Frankenstein’s younger brother. The grief-stricken Frankenstein traveled to the mountains. It was there, in the Mer de Glace, that the monster found him and begged him to create a female counterpart.
The story then moves to lower elevations before returning to a vast expanse of ice. Frankenstein created, and then destroyed, the female companion that the monster requested; the monster killed Frankenstein’s best friend and later his wife. (In popular culture, the confusion between the scientist and the monster is replicated in the confusion over the identity of bride of Frankenstein.) The scientist and the monster both traveled to the Arctic, the scientist to die of pneumonia, the monster to wander off on a real Ice-sea, the Arctic Ocean, heading towards the North Pole.
The conference, titled Frankenstein’s Shadow: A Bicentennial Assessment of the Frankenstein Narrative’s Influence, is being held on June 14 and 15 at the Fondation Bocher in Hermance, near Geneva. Organized to examine the influence of the Frankenstein myth on current views of science, it is being sponsored by the Center for Science and the Imagination and the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, along with Duke University, the University of Lausanne, and the Fondation Brocher, which specializes in the study of bioethics.
Elizabeth Denlinger, a librarian and researcher at the New York Public Library who is attending the conference, wrote to GlacierHub, “The novel only becomes more significant as technology approaches ever close in reality what was only fantasy in 1816.” She continues, “I, personally, hope that we take away the last words Victor Frankenstein speaks: ‘I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.’ This, not the idiotic belief that science is dangerous, is what’s worth remembering. But the daring it takes to change ourselves and our world purposely is frightening, and leaves people prey to superstitious fears.”
She noted that a number of talks focused on themes close to the ones in the book–gene therapy, artificial intelligence, assisted reproduction technologies. Her own talk focuses on museums exhibition which have represented the ethical issues in Frankenstein’s experiment.
Denlinger commented on the importance of ice in the book. She writes “The crucial scene of the novel is set on the Mer de Glace, which Mary Shelley uses to good purpose to give Victor and the creature privacy; to isolate them in the reader’s imagination; and to echo in the setting the strangeness of the moment. I think it’s important that the Mer de Glace, though a ‘stupendous scene’ and a ‘vast river of ice,’ is still surrounded by familiar European land. The final Arctic scene is meant to be abysmal in a literal sense, endlessly vast.” She noted that the participants in the conference found themselves “talking about shrinking ice in Antarctica … after dinner.”
And one talk at the conference focuses directly on these themes. Dehlia Hannah, director of the research and curatorial project A Year Without a Winter, wrote a talk “The Year Without a Summer/Winter: Frankenstein and Climate Change,” linking present climate concerns with the volcanic eruption of Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, which spewed the vast amounts of ash into the atmosphere that created the cold wet winter which, in turn, contributed to the novel. In an interview with GlacierHub, she described how her project looks back at 1816, the anomalous “‘year without a summer’ in order to rethink the climatic disregulation we face today.” Frankenstein’s experiment and greenhouse gas emissions, she stated, both demonstrate that “when we intervene dramatically in the order ot nature, we risk unforeseeable consequences, ones for which we are not prepared to assume responsibility.”
Readers of GlacierHub who cannot travel to Switzerland these days will have an opportunity to learn more about Frankenstein through classes at the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library, where Denlinger is the curator. Denlinger will also serve as guest curator of a special exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York in 2018, the bicentennial of the book’s publication, focusing on the novel, its author, and what Denlinger terms “its hideous progeny on stage and in film.” This event, like the conference, may well serve as an opportunity for reflection on the great power that glaciers exercised on the human imagination two hundred years ago, and on their new significance in an era of climate change.