Shrinking glaciers: A Matterhorn community responds

February 20, 2012 | 9:14 pm | , Climate Presenter International Project Manager

This is the second of two blog posts about the impacts of melting glaciers in Switzerland. You can read the first post here.

After a fascinating day in Zurich learning about the risks of glacial retreat, I headed by train to Zermatt, a town at the foot of the Matterhorn, to hear from some professionals who work in an environment impacted by glaciers every day.

Zermatt is at 1,608 meters above sea level; that’s 5,276 feet. This town offers not only year-round skiing, but also a unique car-free lifestyle. Residents get around by walking, skiing, electric “taxi,” or the occasional horse-drawn carriage. No combustion engines are allowed except for a few emergency vehicles. Although there are almost 30 major peaks within viewing distance of the town, the highlight is definitely the Matterhorn, which is over 4,260 meters (14,000 feet) high. The mountain glaciers, like the Gorner glacier pictured below, are rapidly receding.

I spoke with Christian Gruetter, an engineer-surveyor for the town, who told me about the retreat of the glaciers near Zermatt and some potential hazards.

Next to the Dom, one of the highest mountains in Switzerland, there is an old glacier called Grabengufer. Many glaciers normally travel 8 meters a year, Christian told me. “This one travel 8 meters in two months.”

Christian explained that since 2008, scientists have been monitoring the glacier closely. While the movement is less urgent than they’d first feared, there is a “critical passage” where a glacier lake might form. The community has also built a protection wall up on the mountain to protect against possible rock and ice falls.

“Also, there was a suspension bridge on the Europaweg trail but they had to close it as soon as they’d opened it because it was too dangerous,” he said. “It is very steep and if the rocks fall down they might fall onto the bridge. I should mention, these rocks are the size of a house.”

Christian told me that in his spare time he is also a mountaineer, and he has experienced firsthand how hikers and climbers must find new routes through the Alps due to the retreating glaciers.

I also visited Lorena Donnabella from the Zermatt Bergbahnen – the company responsible for building, maintaining and operating the vast cable car system throughout the Matter Valley.

Lorena told me how this key mountain industry is making efforts to reduce its impact on the local environment and the global climate.

“We are optimizing our artificial snow system so that we produce more snow in less time so that not much energy is used,” she said. “We also made some studies at the Trockener Steg (a cable car station) and found it’s one of the areas where we can have solar panels. So there are solar panels there.”

She added that the restaurant at Matterhorn Glacier Paradise Station, the highest mountain viewing platform in Europe, received an energy efficiency rating called Minergie-P. The restaurant is “covered with solar panels on the facade,” she said “Thanks to the solar panels, we can provide all our own energy for heating and lighting. It also has an autonomous purification plant, and the wastewater is used for artificial snow.”

These are just a few of the ways that the town and businesses of Zermatt are dealing with the hazards of climate change and reducing their carbon footprint. How is climate change affecting the communities and businesses near you?

Many thanks to Christian Gruetter and Lorena Donnabella, and also to Urs Geissbuehler and the Zermatt Tourismus for their assistance with this story.