Mountaineering meets the climate crisis: are tragic accidents like those on the Marmolada becoming more common?

The current accident on the Marmolada, in which at least seven people were killed by a glacier fracture, confirms in a sad and impressive way what is unfortunately obvious: the alpine dangers of mountaineering are undoubtedly increasing as global warming progresses. 

"In the specific case of Marmolada disaster July 3, 2022, it was above all the constantly high temperatures and the resulting rapid increase in meltwater inside the glacier that caused the huge ice flake to slide off," explains Thomas Wanner, mountaineering expert at the Austrian Alpine Club.

And he specifies: “The accident on the highest mountain in the Dolomites has nothing to do with a prevailing avalanche danger, as reported in numerous media. Although the consequences, namely the falling of huge masses of rock and ice, ultimately bring a similar result. »

"In the specific case of the Marmolada disaster on July 3, 2022, it was above all the consistently high temperatures and the resulting rapid increase in meltwater inside the glacier that caused the huge ice flake to slide off."

Thomas Wanner, mountain sports expert at the Austrian Alpine Club

Mountaineering becomes more dangerous

The danger of ice and rock falls, the danger of falling on steep bare ice fields, as well as the increased danger of falling into crevasses on thin firn surfaces are concrete examples of the increase in the overall risk when mountaineering. You stand directly with the Climate change in context.

"Rock falls are often due to the increased melting of the permafrost ice attributed, the 'kit of the Alps' is slowly dissolving. This mainly affects steep rock faces, facing north and at over 2.500 m above sea level," says Marco Gabl from the Department of Huts, Trails and Cartography at the Austrian Alpine Club.

«Rockfalls are often due to the increased melting of the permafrost ice, the 'kit of the Alps' is slowly dissolving. This mainly affects steep rock faces, facing north and at over 2.500 m above sea level.»

Marco Gabl from the department of huts, trails and cartography at the Austrian Alpine Club

“As a result of the melting, these areas are becoming increasingly unstable. The hotter the summer, the deeper the permafrost thaws and the more unstable the steep rock faces become,” says the Alpine Club’s trail expert.

But the lower regions are also affected: Studies assume that by the middle of the 21st century the frequency of so-called extreme events of the century will increase by 10 to 20 percent. In practice, this means more rockfalls, more mudslides and thus more damage to the alpine infrastructure.

“As a result of the melting, these areas are becoming increasingly unstable. The hotter the summer, the deeper the permafrost thaws and the more unstable the steep rock faces become.”

Marco Gabl from the department of huts, trails and cartography at the Austrian Alpine Club

The paths up the mountains are changing

Classical full swing will continue to shift towards spring in the future because there is more snow on the glaciers earlier in the year, so the conditions are more suitable. In the Austrian Alps, too, numerous normal ascents to well-known peaks have already changed a lot and may no longer be accessible in the medium term.

"That sugar cone in the Stubai Alps has not been offered by the local mountain guides in summer for several years due to the increasing risk of falling rocks, including the normal route on the Grossglockner has already been moved," says Thomas Wanner. Even the famous Matterhorn is regularly closed completely due to the thawing permafrost.

"The Zuckerhütl in the Stubai Alps has not been offered by the local mountain guides in summer for several years due to the increasing danger of falling rocks, and the normal route to the Grossglockner has already been relocated."

Thomas Wanner, mountain sports expert at the Austrian Alpine Club

The Alpine Club recommends that you get comprehensive information about the current conditions from the local mountain guide offices and huts, especially before high tours planned late in the season. Especially this year, when there was very little precipitation in the winter and most of the corn snow has already melted away in early summer - and one heat record is chasing the next. 

Additional information

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Credits: Cover Vincentiu Solomon

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