Could Climate Change Make Climbing More Dangerous?


Could climate change affect outdoor sports that rely heavily on safety, like climbing? One new study by Arnaud J.A.M. Temme published in a geographical journal, Geografiska Annaler, and based on research done by Wageningen University, says this could be the case.

More particularly based on climbing activities in the Alps, the author used previously published mountain guides to dissect the possibility of melting permafrost contributing to the loosening and falling of rocks on mountains.

For years, the scientific community has known that global warming has been contributing to the receding of glaciers and retreating paths of snow fields; this pattern has been present in the Alps, Greenland, and even in snow-capped mountains in US national parks. 

While we know how global warming affects ice and snow, this new study states new information regarding how it affects geological structures that cohabit with ice and snow. According to Temme, as permafrost degrades, its continuous cycle of freezing and thawing allows it to seep into cracks in between rocks and mountain crevices; as liquid freezes, it can expand to the point of breaking a rock, but still keeping it in place within its encasement. However, as the ice melts, so does the glue that holds fractured rocks together and boulders to the mountain, contributing to falling rocks and dislodged boulders. 

Temme used old climbing guides written by experienced Bernes Alps mountaineers over the course of 147 years to identify dangers and warning signs marked in the guides, like the orientation of rocks, that could lead to falling rock or rock avalanches. This information allowed him to make an almost 150-year record of information linking climate change to contributing factors for these natural disasters and climbing hazards. 

While understanding climate change can give way to information that can help predict hazards, climate change does not affect mountain ranges in equal measure. Factors such as east and west faces of mountains having considerably different temperature swings and the slope degree of each mountain face, require more calculation to predict hazards. The type of rock present can also contribute to increased hazards, such as mountain sides surrounded by granite and amphibolite. 

Historically, old records of climate and its changes, such as that of the 1881 Arctic Greely Expedition, have allowed future generations to explore climate change and publish new studies with their findings. Today, we still used records of expeditions, like climate records from the 1910 Terra Nova Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott, to make a large scale records of climate change in the Antarctic and predict future weather patterns. The same concept was used by Temme, only he used the records of mountaineers. 

Original Article:

Temme, A.J.A.M., 2015. Using climber’s guidebooks to assess rock fall patterns over large spatial and decadal temporal scales: an example from the Swiss Alps. Geografiska Annaler: Series A, Physical Geography. 97, 793–807. doi:10.1111/geoa.12116

Image Credit: Burtonpe Wikipedia | License


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