Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

Germany's roof

A golden cross sits on top of Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze, located in the Ammergauer Alps. This part of the Alps, and the mountain itself, are a big draw for visitors eager to ski, hike, climb or just cruise to the top in a cable car to have some food or a beer. But the mountains are feeling the impact of a warming world — at an alarming rate.

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

Rapid warming

It's September and unusually warm. So warm that some people wear shorts and T-shirts as they stop off to eat and explore the glacier plateau before heading for the summit. Thirty years ago, it would have been much colder here. Since 1985, there's been a warming of around 1 degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit). In the Alps, temperatures are rising twice as fast as the global average.

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

Melting glaciers

Increased temperatures mean receding glaciers. Michael Krautblatter, pictured at the Schneefernerhaus environmental research station with the remnants of one of the Zugspitze's glaciers behind him, says "it's just a matter of time before they disappear." The professor of landslide research at Munich's Technical University (TUM) has been studying the mountain's ice for 10 years.

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

The science bit

Krautblatter and his team use specialized equipment to measure the Zugspitze's ice and permafrost — a layer of permanently frozen sediment, rock or soil. They place electrodes inside the rocks to measure electrical conductivity. If it's no longer frozen, conductivity is good. The work sometimes involves the researchers scaling the mountain face. The permafrost is disappearing too, they say.

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

Losing stability

That's bad news, largely because permafrost helps to stabilize the mountain rock. Over the past year, around a thousand rockfalls have been reported, says Krautblatter. Some popular hiking routes have already been closed and a dozen or so Alpine huts are subsiding. It could also be a problem for cable cars, because they are anchored in the rocks on the mountainside.

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

A family tradition

Scientists aren't the only ones who've witnessed the changes. Toni Zwinger is 33 years old and works at the inn run by his family near the summit. He grew up on the mountain and as a child the glaciers were his playground. He says the glacier is much smaller, the winters are warmer and he hears the rocks shifting outside in the evening when the tourists have gone and the mountain is quiet.

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

Münchner Haus

The Münchner Haus opened in 1897 and the Zwinger family has been running it since 1925 — back when it could only be reached by climbers. It's a traditional Alpine hut in which people can stay overnight. Those people can now easily ascend the mountain by train and cable car. That's increased the number of visitors to the peak exponentially.

Climate change hits the Bavarian Alps

Uncertain future

Even if, as set out in the Paris Agreement, the world manages to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, that would represent warming of around 4 degrees in the Alps. That means less snow, more rain, changing vegetation and no glaciers. It could also mean that visitors will no longer be able to enjoy a beer or hot chocolate at the century-old Münchner Haus.

The mountains are warming twice as fast as the global average. But what impact is this having on senstive Alpine regions in Germany?