Wonderful views, long mountain slopes, solitary peaks and snow-covered tranquility — Europe’s Alpine region is the place to be for many travelers in both summer and winter. Increasingly, though, the Alps are becoming infamous for traffic jams, overcrowded villages and pleasure seekers obstructing hiking trails and skiing slopes. What used to be idyllic Alpine villages in pristine landscapes have been transformed into ugly concrete fortresses of mass accommodation. More recently, the effects of climate change are compounding the woes of the Alps. “It can be clearly observed that warming in the Alpine region is progressing significantly faster than the global average,” says Steffen Reich.
In charge of nature protection at the German Alpine Club — the world’s largest organization of mountaineers and hikers with about 1.4 million members — Reich told DW that longer and significantly hotter heatwaves as well as less snowfall are causing glaciers to melt quicker and permafrost soil to thaw more rapidly. At the same time, storms are increasing in strength and frequency, wiping out entire forests on the mountain slopes. As a result soil erosion is worsening and could heighten the risk of land- and mudslides.
Tourism at risk
Tourism is the main breadwinner for Alpine populations, and scaling back the annual influx of holiday makers seems out of the question. Quite the contrary, said Reich. He expects the region to become “even more popular with tourists” due to climate change because the mountainous region “will be cooler than lower-lying areas.”
Skiing resorts are especially hard hit by climate change and need to adapt the most. Less snowfall and higher temperatures are already taking their toll, substantially raising the bills for local communities to make up for the lack of natural snow with technical means. Even so, Alpine temperatures are already rising above levels that render snow cannons and other machines that produce artificial snow useless.
All of this will change the face of tourism in the Alps, which is still the region with the most winter resorts in the world. Henriette Adolf of the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA) thinks in the future people will no longer be able to enjoy “a string of seven days of Alpine skiing,” but need to be flexible enough to engage in activities more in line with “the local conditions” at specific points in time.
Adolf suggests that cross-country skiing, which requires less snow, could become an alternative to Alpine skiing, and thinks tourists will have to get used to doing without snow altogether much of the time. She called on local tourism authorities to prepare for year-round seasons that would require refitting skiing lifts, for example, to make them available for hikers, too.
Hiking out of climate trouble?
Despite hiking and mountaineering growing in popularity in the Alps, those activities are also becoming more dangerous. “Especially for high-altitude climbers, the consequences of global warming and the associated increased risks in (still) glaciated areas are dramatic,” the Austrian Alpine Club wrote in a newsletter to its members recently.
The gradual thawing of permafrost soils at altitudes above 2,400 meters (2,624 yards) poses a big problem. These permanently frozen grounds act effectively like glue, holding entire rock formations. Their thawing can cause dangerous mudslides, rockfall or entire mountains to collapse.
In June this year, part of the summit of the Fluchthorn Mountain in the Austrian state of Tyrol collapsed, sending more than a million cubic meters of rock — equivalent to about 120,000 truckloads — crashing into the valley below and triggering mudslides. “Hiking trails have to be temporarily closed or permanently re-routed due to the risk of landslides and similar issues,” said Reich.
Gerhard Mössmer from the Austrian Alpine Club said that tourists could no longer rely on printed guidebooks or analog maps. They had better get their travel information from internet portals or directly from people on the ground to be on the safe side, he told DW.
The climate-related upheavals in the Alpine landscapes are increasing the pressure on the operators of huts and shelters in the mountains to adapt. Some of those dwellings, which are often operated by the Alpine clubs, needed to have their foundations reinforced to withstand soil erosion. Moreover, water is becoming scarcer in the summer.
“Water is being saved, cisterns are being installed, toilets that do not require water are being built, or showers are being reduced,” said Reich. “I have also experienced situations where water was rationed, or only a limited amount of water could be taken for hiking,” Henriette Adolf said. “Still there are huts that were forced to end their season early because they ran out of water.”
The downsides of success
Apart from climate change, tourism in the Alps is having a massive problem with too many holiday makers swarming the region every year. Local populations are feeling overwhelmed by the mass influx of tourists, many of them only coming to chase the latest must-visit site popular on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook.
The Italian region of South Tyrol, for example, has already restricted the number of holiday beds. Regional councilor Arnold Schuler told US broadcaster CNN in spring this year that the popular resort had “reached the limit of our resources” as traffic problems abounded and local residents “have difficulty finding affordable housing.”
German Alpine Club’s Steffen Reich believes such drastic measure aren’t need everywhere. “You have to precisely understand what the real problem is. Is it the negative affects on local populations? Is it the threats on wildlife? Or is it primarily a park management problem?” Each problem, he said, would need its own specific solution.