Melting German Glacier Gets Sunscreen, Again


Germany gives its national treasure, the Zugspitze, the deep freeze. Photo via flickr by Stephen A

A couple weeks ago, Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze, got dressed in a sun shield to protect its melting glacier during summer. The mountain's ski resort, Bayerische Zugspitzbahn, covered the north side with reflective tarps to reduce the amount of shrinkage of the ice sheet. Is this working? Giant anti-glare screens were applied to the 10,000-foot peak in the northern Alps and then smothered in snow to keep surfaces cool and protect it from rain. During winter, explosives created controlled avalanches to heave more snow on the glacier and fences were erected to protect it from wind erosion.

For the last 14 years the same effort to preserve this glacier has happened, but this year, the shield expanded by 50 percent to cover 9,000 square meters and save 30,000 cubic meters, an area approximately the size of a football field – or at least it's an attempt to slow the process.

The Zugspitze has shrunk to almost half its thickness over the last century. It's now 45 meters (147 feet) deep. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), states that smaller Alpine glaciers will disappear and others shrink from 30 to 70 percent by 2050 as the world's glaciers recede. It’s estimated the endangered Zugspitze glacier could vanish within 20 years. The rapid loss of these eco-systems is seen as a temperature gauge for global warming, with the Rhine River and other European waterways levels dropping significantly, as well as other consequences.

Cyrogenics for mountains?

Is this sunscreen a smokescreen, intended to save the ski resort and picturesque mountain view - or the environment? Critics of the efforts say the patch receiving the treatment is primarily meant to preserve tourism in the village of Garmisch-Partenkirchen where about 500,000 tourists ski and snowboard the mountain every year. Gouging half-pipes for snowboarders has stopped with spring camps, popular a few years ago, are a thing of the past because of the reflective mats.

Are commerce-driven initiatives, a system of cryogenics - staving off the disintegration until the cure is in place? Attacking the cause of the problem should be the goal, not just putting a big band-aid on it. Germany is the 6th largest contributor to greenhouse gasses according to reports (other rankings put it in the top 25).

Reuters reports that Markus Weber, meteorologist and glacier expert at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in Munich says, "It's expensive and the impact is limited." Since the coverings only shield a small area for winter sports it won't save the glacier.

Maybe artist Christo should switch his medium and wrap mountains instead of islands?


Christo's Gates via Flickr by Kevin Coles
More on melting glaciers:
Iconic Bolivian Glacier Disappears: Melting Increased Three-Fold
Global Warming Melting Glaciers, Shrinking Harvests in China
Satellite Images Reveal Two of Greenland's Biggest Glaciers Are Losing More Ice
Beyond Glaciers: Yosemite's Big Trees Disappear

Tags: Carbon Emissions | Germany | Glaciers | Global Climate Change | Water Crisis