Could climate change make climbing more dangerous? An academic study reports on the dangers of melting ice for mountaineers.
Could climate change affect outdoor sports that rely heavily on safety, like climbing? One study by Arnaud J.A.M. Temme published in a geographical journal, Geografiska Annaler, says this could be the case.
The report was published using research done by Wageningen University. 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 climate change has been contributing to receding glaciers and retreating paths of snowfields. This pattern has been present in the Alps, Greenland, and even in snow-capped mountains in US national parks.
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 the liquid freezes, it can expand to the point of breaking rock, but still keeping it in place within its encasement.
However, as the ice melts, so does the glue that holds fractured rocks and boulders together and attached 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. This included data reports on the orientation of rocks and how it 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.
Understanding climate change can give way to information that can help predict hazards. But climate change does not affect mountain ranges in equal measure. Factors such as considerably different temperature swings and slope degrees of the east and west faces of mountains require more calculation to predict hazards.
In 2019, melting glaciers on Mont Blanc threatened to break free in massive, rapid-moving chunks. In Sweden, the country’s once highest peak no longer holds this record. Melting ice caps have brought it down 1.2 meters lower than a nearby northern peak.
The type of rock present can also contribute to increased hazards, such as mountainsides 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 the 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.
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
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