Time revisit a couple of favorite mountains scenes in the Summit Voice archives, and time to remember that global warming is going alter some mountain landscapes irrevocably, not it the far distant future, but within a few decades. For example, a new study shows how warming will alter basic soil chemistry by speeding up microbial activity and shifting the balance of key nutrients. This will displace some plants and probably eliminate others. And as much as we appreciate forested landscapes, climate change is driving the spread of tree-killing insects, as shown by the latest aerial survey of Colorado forests. Check out more environmental and nature photography from Summit Voice at our online gallery, or visit the Sunday Set archives.
Most of my photography focuses on natural landscapes, and I often try to set up and compose images to avoid human intrusion. That’s because I figure the human species has pretty much become a destructive parasite on the Earth, for the most part only taking, without giving anything back. But there are places where people live in harmony with their surroundings; where structures are built on a scale that doesn’t suggest dominance. I found a few places like that this summer while touring around Austria doing research for the Global Warming in the Alps project, for example the roadside farmhouse nestled into the hillside in the first image, or the Almtalerhaus, a mountain refuge and restaurant in the Salzkammergut lakes region of Upper Austria. As well, the Dachstein Lodge am Krippenstein is a rebuilt shelter that fits well on its mountaintop perch, rather than looming ostentatiously over the slopes like so many other new mountain lodges. We’re all going to have to try and live on a more human scale if we’re going to get serious about creating a sustainable future for our kids.
What’s left of the glaciers around the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest peak.
Mondsee, one of the Salzkammergut lakes, from the highway.
Grosses Wiesbachhorn (3,564 M) from the Grossglocknerstrasse.
Austrian high country.
Our reporting for the global warming in the Alps project took us to the high country around Austria’s highest peak, the Grossglockner, late last week, where we saw firsthand how the once mighty glaciers have dwindled to remnant shards of ice in the past few decades, with uncertain consequences for ecosystems below. The mountain valleys are still lush green in the Austrian high country, but there are great concerns that the meltdown could affect aquatic life in the streams below the glaciers, not to mention hydropower production, one of Austria’s main sources of renewable energy.
Morning alpenglow illuminates the Hallstatt Glacier in Austria’s Salzkammergut region.
Karst landscape on the Krippenstein at sunset.
The Hallstätter See from above.
Langbathsee, Upper Austria.
A late summer sojourn in the always sparkling mountain and lake country of the Salzkammergut yielded some good research material for our journalism project on climate change in the Alps and we had the opportunity to spend a night atop the Krippenstein, at an elevation of about 2,000 meters. One of the old alpine huts near the summit has been converted into a snazzy alpine lodge, The Lodge at Krippenstein, and there’s even a Colorado connection — seems Chris Davenport enjoyed a good ski session here a few years ago, and it turns out that Warren Miller has also filmed short segment in the area. The lodge is also operated as a climate friendly green business, and has won awards for its sustainable practices, and it is, of course, a great base camp for exploring this wonderful slice of the Alps.
All the pictures except one show lakes of the region, intricately tied to the Hallstattt Glacier in the upper right, which feeds the system, in turn a major headwaters tributary to the mighty Danube. The country’s glaciers are shriveling at an accelerated rate, as are it’s lakes, heating up at twice the global average. Earlier spring melt and longer, hotter summers have warmed streams, and larger rivers, even more, leading to increased fish disease and blooms of algae. Similar issues have been documented around the Alps and worldwide as clear global warming impacts. Learn more here.
LOWER AUSTRIA — Austria’s high alpine pastures, called Alms, are an important part of the country’s cultural tradition. For centuries, herders have driven cattle and sheep up and down the sides of the mountains following seasonal cycles of plant growth and snow melt.
The livestock grazing is managed mindfully to promote vegetation growth and biodiversity. It may be a difficult concept to grasp at first, but the rhythm of alpine grazing actually fosters biodiversity. Orchids, medicinal herbs and wildflowers thrive in the clearings and create lush green open patches in the landscape that are aesthetically pleasing.
In recent decades, the simple shelter huts near the pastures have also been developed as a recreational and economic resource, providing meals and lodging for tourists and serving as base camps for trekkers and cyclists.
At the Hochbärneck Alm, 900 meters elevation, there are also two ski lifts, but this past winter, they only operated for two days. Just 20 years ago, the ski season ran from late November through March. In recent years, it has barely snowed and temperatures were have been above the 20th century average nearly every day.
But climate change is taking a toll on Austria. The country’s average temperature has increased by 2 degrees Celsius in the past 50 years, more than twice the global average of .85 degrees Celsius, according to a 2014 climate assessment. That warming spells big changes for mountain environments, including the bucolic pastures around the Alm. For now, the cowbells still chime, but the future is uncertain.
A sustained heatwave last summer hit Austrian agriculture especially hard, and the odds of more extreme weather are good, according to many recent climate studies. The heatwave also took a big bite out of Austria’s glaciers, where decades of rapid melting is one of the clearest signs of global warming.
Austria’s government has formally recognized the cultural, economic and ecological values of traditional mountain agriculture as part of its climate policies, and an ambitious national adaptation plan seeks to address the challenges by helping communities boost ecosystem health. Keeping forests, meadows and streams healthy is one of the best ways to protect against climate change impacts.
With support from the Earth Journalism Network and Internews, we’ll be exploring this topic for the next several weeks, following herders as they move their livestock up into the Alpine zone, on through to the end of the summer, when the cows-bedecked with flowers and bells, are driven back to the valley towns for the winter in a colorful procession.
We’ll explore some of the best practices for sustaining ecosystems and mountain communities and ask whether the farmers are getting the support that’s needed, as spelled out by the adaptation plan. And we’ll here from them what changes they’ve already experienced.
Follow our Twitter feed for frequent updates and Instagram for photos from the reporting project — and don’t be afraid to ask questions or add comments about global warming in the Austrian Alps. We’ll include those questions in our interviews with environmental experts, resource managers and government officials as we report on climate change in the Austrian Alps.
Does industrial soot play a role in the meltdown of Alpine glaciers?
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — With temperatures in the European Alps rising twice as fast as the global average, there’s little hope of saving some of the world’s most famous glaciers without immediate and significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
New study finds signs of human activity at high elevations going back 8,000 years
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — The high Alps of Europe may have been settled quite a bit earlier than believed, according to new research by French and British archaeologists. The 14-year study in the Parc National des Écrins in the southern Alps is one of the most detailed archaeological investigations carried out at high altitudes.