Soon the only way to get up close and personal with the peak of the Matterhorn will be to pick up a package of Toblerone chocolate.
The craggy behemoth, which is the most recognizably shaped mountain in the Alps and straddles the border between Switzerland and Italy, measures 14,692 feet above sea level at its highest point.
But fame won’t save it from succumbing to climate change: The Matterhorn is quite literally cracking.
Last month, a team of researchers installed 50 movement sensors at 13,000 feet to monitor how the mountain is coping with rising temperatures and melting permafrost, the layer of frozen soil beneath the Earth’s surface. Sending the data back to mountain guides for risk assessment, they’ve found developing and expanding fissures that lead to rockfalls and landslides.
“When the high mountains thaw in summer, the stiffness decreases and the ground sediments get soggy and wobbly with water. Think stracciatella ice cream with much more chocolate chips than vanilla ice cream,” researcher Jan Beutel tells the Sunday Times. “Cracks expand and move. Many continue to move in the same direction every year and then, at some point, it’s too much and a small scale of the surface breaks off. If there were more ice in place — as in the good old mountaineering past — it wouldn’t be that bad, since the ice cover would still hold these pieces together.”
This loss of ice extends to the rest of the Alps. Data reported by the World Glacier Monitoring Service shows a steady loss in glaciers, which are recognized as one of the most sensitive indicators of climate change.
“After 30 consecutive years of alpine glacier mass loss, it is clear that the ‘diet/lifestyle’ of alpine glaciers is not healthy and, as the climate they live in changes, alpine glaciers will continue a downward health spiral,” said scientist Mauri Pelto in his writeup on commentary site Real Climate. Over the last century, the warming of the atmosphere of the Alps has increased by more than double the rise in average global temperature.
The Matterhorn is more than just a mountain. It is intertwined with Swiss identity and a prized summit for mountain climbers, its pyramidal apex a favorite subject of photographers.
Its first ascent by humans, in 1865, marked the golden age of alpine mountaineering. That ascent killed four of the seven climbers after one slipped and took three others down with him. Earlier this month, after the seventh climber death of this year, guides called on officials to close the mountain for being “too dangerous.” In July alone, the mountain claimed three lives, one of them a mountain guide. The cause of two of the deaths? Falling rock.
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