Neuron Culture

Eiger loses face

I enjoy most any mix of science and mountaineering — part of why I so like Mark Bowen’s Thin Ice, his book about climatologist Lonnie Thompson’s remarkable work documenting global warming in high-altitude glaciers. Scientific work done at rarefied altitudes. How can you not like it?


The North Face of the Eiger, 2005 — aka the Eigerwand of climbing fame. The east face, photos of which I couldn’t find, is out of sight around the corner.

Photo by Dirk Beyer
via Wikipedia Commons.

I’m less thrilled to see global warming meet alpinism on the Eiger, where last Thursday about 400,000 cubic meters of the Eiger fell off the mountain’s east face. Geologist and climatologist Hans-Rudolf Keusen, who specializes in remote detection of geological hazards and chairs a related working group at ProClim (a climate study group), had predicted this the previous week after tracking the expansion of huge rapidly widening cracks in the face. According to Keusen, the east face will lose some 2 million cubic feet altogether — a volume roughly that of the Twin Towers — will collapse this summer because global warming has melted a glacier that helped support the massive cliff, allowing it to crack apart.

The prospect of more collapses is drawing a lot of tourists. The Eiger will stand a while yet, of course. Yet as a fan of the Alps and an avid armchair mountaineer, I find distressing that we’re changing these iconic and beautiful mountains. The rockfall is probably only the most dramatic such change. Mountaineer Doug Scott (who at a lecture I was lucky enough to attend explained his assessment and retreat from a particular daunting and dangerous ascent by saying, “Anything you really want to do, you can. So why bother?”) told the Times of London that

“In the past few years the alpine climbs like the Dru and the Eiger have become more and more threatened by snowfall and massive collapses. I first climbed the Alps in 1957, but they are far more dangerous today.”

Quite dismaying.

Warming is also set to pooch the Alps’ skiing. A recent study predicted that the next 25 years will eliminate half the ski areas in the Alps. The decline has already begun, as detailed at the excellent ski site and the World Wildlife Fund site. Over 20% of the Alp’s glacier cover melted between 1985 and 2000, and a Guardian story tells how some Alpine resorts are building trails higher and higher in an attempt to stay in business.

Finally, closer to home, ScienceBlog notes that a Scripps Institution study implicates global warming in Western US wildfires.

Grim stuff all around.