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Climate change and glacier melting at the core of the Europe: The case of Mont Blanc

By Elisabetta Dall’Ò, Department of Cultures, Politics, and Society, University of Turin, Italy

This paper describes the preliminary results of anthropological research I’ve been conducting on the Mont Blanc area (Western Europe), concerning the impacts of climate change on the mountain environment.

The Mont Blanc area—meaning “white mountain” because of its dazzling white glaciers—is one of the most important natural and cultural heritage sites in the world. It’s located in the Western Alps, mostly in France and Italy, but also straddling Switzerland at its northeastern end. It contains eleven major independent summits, each over 4,000 m (13,123 ft) in height, and it is named after Mont Blanc (4,808 m / 15,774 ft), the highest point in Western Europe. Because of its considerable overall altitude, a large proportion of the massif is covered by glaciers. This region is characterized by a huge variety of biodiversity, habitats, and environments, in which human and wildlife species coexist, coping with extreme natural phenomena, due to specific weather conditions and local topography.

There is widespread and multifaceted risk throughout this area. We have definite knowledge of the different forms of risk, and we know where they are likely to occur: avalanches, rockfalls, landslides, and mainly mud slides. Yet these risks still coexist some uncertainties of temporal order and intensity. We don’t know when these phenomena will appear, and we can only assume how intense they will be. They could appear simultaneously, amplifying the consequences the ones on the others, or they may appear in different moments.

What is certain is that ongoing climate change makes future scenarios less predictable, and therefore less manageable and more impactful (Gugg, Dall’Ò, and Borello 2019). Various academic disciplines, and indeed the world at large, are increasingly turning attention to “climate change”, to its related events, and to its impacts. In particular, much attention has been given to how local and global communities respond to climatic changes and its linked hazards, with pointed focus on specific policy practices carried out in order to mitigate the potentially devastating effects. In the Mont Blanc area, small involved local communities have experienced a transformation of livelihoods due to the urbanization of the mountain since the late 1960s and 1970s, uncontrolled urbanization, building speculation, massive tourism, motorway construction, ski resorts, and the construction of the Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy—a major trans-alpine transport route with a consequently huge amount of traffic. Through this change there has been a progressive abandonment of pastoralism and cultivation in a large part of the territory. By the second half of the twentieth century, a “new consumer culture” could be observed, eager and short-sighted, able to eat away in a few decades the fabric and the memory of previous way of life.

Due to climate change, in this “cultural, natural, and environmental” context an irreversible phenomenon is taking place: glacier retreat. It has become clear that many of the glaciers that had seemed permanent features of the landscape for millennia will not survive for many more decades. Increasingly, however, it is being recognized that science, technology, and engineering may not hold all the answers to cope with these central environmental challenges (Jones 2016). This is dramatically true for glaciers’ melting and its consequences—floods, water scarcity, avalanches, permafrost loss, rockfalls—which are among the most meaningful threats that the Alps and mountain regions all over the world are now facing as the result of rising global temperatures and climatic instability.

The most frequently discussed impact of glacier melting on global environmental change is its contribution to sea-level rise, but this is only a part of a very global issue. Permafrost melting is probably one of the most dramatic consequences of this phenomenon. In the frozen core of the mountains of Switzerland, for example, a group of researchers have measured startling temperature increases, with jumps as much as half a degree Celsius in just a decade 20 feet deep into the rocks. On Svalbard, an Arctic island north of Norway, similar warming has been measured more than 100 feet deep in the permafrost. On mountain slopes, permafrost is the frozen soil that holds together rocks. Continued warming and the thawing of permafrost also increases the occurrence of big mudslides and debris flows (Dall’Ò 2019). The more frozen soil thaws, the more it can easily be set into motion by rain. The ensuing “domino effect”—the melting of the permafrost provokes rockfalls on the glacier, which in turn cause avalanches—boosts every single risk phenomenon in the mountains, consequently emphasizing and implementing a disruptive chain mechanism.

And that’s not all; a second cascade effect can be set in motion. Locked into permafrost there is an estimated 1.7 trillion tonnes of carbon in the form of frozen organic matter. When permafrost thaws, this matter warms up and decomposes, eventually releasing the carbon that it holds as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, gases which have a greenhouse warming effect on the planet.

Summer 2019 was the hottest ever recorded on earth. An awful heat wave swept across Europe and then settled over Greenland, where it triggered the melting of hundreds of billions of tons of ice, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA. The impacts on the Alps have been severe, but despite the urgency of the problem, we are actually observing a disconnection between the seriousness of this phenomenon and its perception.

In the Mont Blanc area, residents and tourists recognize some aspects of local climate change, such as drier summers. But they are relatively untroubled by possible local repercussions such as the genuine risk that the power plant’s reservoir in the Valdigne Mont Blanc mountain community would receive insufficient inflow as glacier retreat increases. Nor do they attribute the increased number of rockfalls and landslides to glacier retreat, since the phenomena that most affect them (e.g. warming temperatures or extreme weather) do not come from the area near the glacier. Local perceptions are more influenced by global political discourses, rather than the direct result of physical visibility.

In general, the study of physical processes associated with glacier retreat is more advanced than the study of the impacts of these processes on human societies; indeed, the question of impacts constitutes an important gap in our knowledge. That’s why including ethnographic and anthropological studies in a multidisciplinary frame of research on climate change — as I’m doing in my work — can be a way to better understand ongoing environmental challenges.

Works Cited

Dall’Ò E. (2019). Historicizing vulnerability: place-names, risk and memory in the Mont Blanc area. AIMS Geosciences, 5(3): 493-508. doi: 10.3934/geosci.2019.3.493.

Gugg G, Dall’Ò E, Borrello D. (2019). Disasters in Popular Cultures. Rende (CS): Il Sileno Edizioni.

Jones RLC. (2016). Responding to Modern Flooding: Old English Place-Names as a Repository of Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Journal of Ecological Anthropology 18(1): n.p.

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