Destinations Magazine

Why Do Austrian Alpine Areas Mollycoddle Their Mountains?

By Linda
writing on blank background

photo : Viola Renate

Austria places a high value on environmental protection, from waste and water management to mollycoddling their mountains. So – why do Austrian alpine areas mollycoddle their mountains?

Little Ice Age

From the study of glaciers, it’s understood that between 1550 and 1850 changes occurred in ice formations across the world’s coldest regions. The period has become known as ‘The Little Ice Age’. It was characterised by the growth of glaciers in high mountainous areas.

Glaciers are formed when snow remains in one place all year round and enough accumulates to turn to ice. Successive falls of snow bury and compress previous layers, forcing air trapped between to be expelled and ice crystals to form. After about 2 years, the glacier begins to grow as the crystals become bigger and air space decreases. But glaciers take hundreds of years to get to a significant size.

Unfortunately, it seems it takes far less time for them to begin to disappear!

Österreichischer Alpenverien (ÖA)

In 1862 (150 years ago!) the Österreichischer Alpenverien (Austrian Alpine Club for mountaineering) was established, with the expressed purpose to promote mountaineering and protect the life and culture of mountain communities. The ÖA are involved in such things as:

  • waymarking mountain paths
  • path maintenance
  • providing mountain Hütte
  • assisting the independent mountain rescue service
  • promoting mountain safety
  • participating in conservation and scientific research relevant to the alpine environment.

What is interesting to note is that much of the practical work of the ÖA is undertaken by a committed army of volunteers, who give up their weekends to man the Hütte and make the mountains safe for the rest of us.

How good is that?

Some of the scientific research the ÖA has been involved in over the years, is monitoring of the state of glaciers in their not inconsiderable area of the Alps. Around 115 glaciers in all!

Glacial Retreat

This isn’t some sort of Austrian alpine holiday hideaway. Glacial retreat refers to the destructive decline of naturally occurring ice formations in these mountain regions. The glaciers are shrinking.

Since 1940, as the climate has warmed glaciers have been observed to melt into the mountain lakes. Between 1950 and 1980 there was a little evidence to suggest that the process was stopping, or at the very least slowing down. But in the latter part of the 2oth century and continuing in the new millennium, there has been a rabid and ubiquitous retreat. This has been particularly noticeable since 1995 in some areas of the Austrian Alps.

According to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, there have been 19 consecutive years of significant glacial volume loss. This isn’t just a concern for the ski industry, where livelihoods depend on making money from the mountains. There is a decimating impact on the biodiversity for flora and fauna. The wildlife of alpine settings are at risk when there is a loss of quality water source, with a resultant migration from the area. This has a knock-on effect on the pollination of flowers, grasses and other food sources; for livestock grazing in mountain pastures…  need I go on?

An Austrian Antidote

A revolutionary approach to the problem has been implemented in some areas of the Austrian Alps.

At Stubai glacier in the Tirol for example, various attempts have been made to prevent summer ‘mass loss’ from the glacier. These have included:

  • injecting water into the glacier during the winter, which served to increase the mass. Did nothing to stop the rate of mass melt during the warmer weather though!
  • packing down the snow in winter to increase the density – but this had no impact on the melt either
  • more recently, the use of plastic blankets has been introduced. The reflective quality of the plastic – which is laid in May to protect throughout the summer season – has reduced erosion by a whopping 60%. And the blanket blends well with the snow-covered surrounding areas!

So there is method to the madness of Austrian’s mollycoddling their mountains!

The ski season is able to continue throughout the year and the greatness of the glacier is preserved for perpetuity – or at least until alternative solution is found to the chaos caused by climatic change.

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