ZUGSPITZE, Germany (Reuters) - The winds are cold at any time of the year on Germany’s highest mountain but the country’s last glacier is melting away despite Herculean efforts to counter the effects of climate change.
Spreading giant anti-glare shields over the glacier each April after piling tonnes of loose snow upon it, workers at the Zugspitezebahn cable car operator are fighting a losing battle to keep their glacier alive — for business and ecology reasons.
“We’re doing all we can to preserve it as long as possible, but I’m not God and there’s only so much we can do,” said Frank Huber, the manager of cable car and skiing operations on the 2,962-metre peak in the northern Alps.
“I grew up with the glacier and it’s sad to think one day my children’s children won’t know what it feels or looks like.”
The effort to stave off the demise of the Zugspitze is considerable, but begs the question why Germany, the world’s sixth largest producer of greenhouse gases, does not do more to tackle the cause of the problem instead.
In her speeches, German Chancellor Angela Merkel often cites the Zugspitze’s state — predicting the national treasure may be gone within 20 years — as an argument for the industrial world to take bolder action against climate change.
Scientists say global warming is responsible for the melting ice. U.N.-funded panels of scientists say heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels are nudging up temperatures.
A minority of scientists dismisses global warming, arguing natural climate fluctuations are responsible.
“It would be more than a shame if the glacier disappears,” Huber said.
As an early warning “global thermometer,” glaciers are extremely sensitive to climate change. One of the world’s most threatened eco-systems, they have been shrinking since the start of the industrial age.
Their retreat has gathered pace in the last quarter-century, as documented in stunning “before and after” photographs. The Zugspitze was 80 meters thick in 1910. Now it is only 45.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up by the United Nations, has said glaciers are endangered: “Small Alpine glaciers will disappear while larger glaciers will suffer a volume reduction between 30 percent and 70 percent by 2050.”
The melting of the frozen ice is more than just the loss of picturesque mountain scenery. Without glaciers, scientists say summertime water levels in European rivers would drop. Much of the Rhine River water in the summer comes from glacier melting.
For the last 14 years at Zugspitze, Huber and his staff have spread a giant tarpaulin to deflect the sun, keep the surface cool and shield it from the corrosive warm summer rain.
The shield, expanded this year by 50 percent to 9,000 square meters, is due to come out within days. The operators say it will preserve 30,000 cubic meters of snow — roughly equivalent to a football-field-sized building that is one-storey high.
“The shield helps slow the process,” said Huber. “It reflects the sun and helps ice form beneath it. But that and all the other things we’re doing are only going to slow the process down a little bit. We aren’t going to be able to save it.”
During the winter, workers also use explosives to set off controlled avalanches on surrounding slopes to push snow onto the glacier. They erect rows of fences — as farmers do — on especially exposed parts to slow wind erosion.
Some critics say this is a waste of time and money, especially as the tarpaulin only covers a relatively small section of the glacier. Its main aim is to preserve the ski area and the Zugspitze as a glacier for marketing reasons, they say.
“The coverings won’t save the glacier because they only shield a small area for winter sport,” said Markus Weber, meteorologist and glacier expert at the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in Munich. “It’s expensive and the impact is limited.”
Huber agreed tourism is the driving force.
“The Zugspitze lives from tourism,” he said, noting that last winter skiers frustrated by a lack of snow in lower altitudes fled to the reliable conditions on the glacier.
“Our goal is to keep the skiing operations going and that’s why we’re trying to protect the snow,” said Huber, who has spent 24 years working on the glacier. “It’s our lifeblood.”
No one will say exactly how much the preservation efforts cost — but they do say the investment is considerable.
About 500,000 tourists take the cable-car or cog rail car to the peak from village of Garmisch-Partenkirchen each year.
Huber said that as a result of climate change they stopped gouging half-pipes for snowboarders into the glacier. They lost customers in the process, which hit the bottom line.
But he said the alternative was worse.
“We realized if we kept digging the half-pipes, the glacier might be gone in 10 rather than 20 years,” he said.