Meltdown: the Alps under pressure (Excerpt 1)
Around mid-June the Pitztal Glacier in Austria goes on summer vacation. That is to say, it begins to melt, racing down Tyrolean mountainsides in frigid streams that eventually lose themselves, like Europeans in August, at a beach somewhere. But if you are the owner of a ski resort on a glacier, four months of melting is a major cause for concern. So one day the owners of the Pitztal Glacier ski resort decided to try something radical. They ordered a supply of what are basically huge white blankets and spread them across 15 acres of the glacier to keep it cold through the summer. It seems to be working: The melting has slowed. So now ski areas in Germany and Switzerland are also wrapping at least part of their glaciers. The glaciers may not feel better, but the resort owners certainly do. One July morning I went up the Stubai Glacier with glaciologist Andrea Fischer and her team of students from the University of Innsbruck. They were there to give the glacier its weekly checkup, measuring how much it had melted under the various types of protective fabric - large squares of wool, hemp, plastic, and combinations of these that lay in rows across the slushy ice. One experimental square, made of plastic, had dropped almost a foot in a week. "It's quite normal that glaciers are gaining or losing mass," Fischer said. What's not normal, say climatologists, is how fast it's happening today. Fischer and her students made note of which material had slowed the melting most effectively. Various materials, including a new white fleece, had slowed the melting to an impressive two inches. You can't wrap a whole mountain range in a blanket. But with so much riding on Alpine ice and snow - skiing, tourism, service industries, and the livelihoods of probably millions of workers - it's easy to see why some people might want to. Yet it will take more than blankets to shield the Alps from the environmental and human pressures facing them today.
(By Erla Zwingle, National Geographic, February 2006.)
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