Matterhorn disintegrating due to global warming
Cycle of freezing and thawing sees lumps of rock falling off the
Matterhorn mountain, say scientists. With its four steep faces
reflecting the compass points, the mighty Matterhorn has proven an
irresistible and often deadly challenge to mountaineers.
But now, the mountain - one of Europe's tallest and most celebrated
peaks - is falling to bits due to climate change, according to a new
As with other Alpine mountains, experts have already documented the
retreat of the peak's glaciers and the thinning of its permafrost in the
wake of rising temperatures.
But scientists now say they have evidence that these rising
temperatures are also prompting the physical disintegration of the
Researchers from the University of Zurich, who have been studying the
mountain closely since 2007, say melting water is permeating exposed
cracks and crevices on the 4,478m (14,690ft) mountain, which straddles
the Swiss-Italian border.
Subsequent cycles of freezing and thawing in these gaps are creating
subtle movements under the rock surface, causing ever-widening fissures
with the result that lumps of rock are falling off, the researchers say.
Their investigation, which relies on sophisticated monitoring devices
situated on 17 key parts of the mountain, was prompted by a huge rock
fall from the Hörnligrat part of the mountain in July 2003, when more
than 50 climbers had to be airlifted off the mountain in the one of the
biggest rescue operations ever mounted in the Alps.
The disintegration of the Matterhorn, which the researchers warn is
symbolic of the problems affecting the rest of the Alps, appears to have
continued since, the Swiss research team's report in the Journal of
"There has been a big increase in the number of rock falls in the
past decade that can't be explained simply by the fact that we're
looking out for them more now," the lead researcher, Stephan Gruber,
told The Independent.
His team's discovery of the key role that icy crevices play in the
Matterhorn's decay suggests that global warming's deleterious effect on
mountain ranges is greater than previously thought.
"We have shown the importance of icy crevices and the melting water
entering them, in the process of rock falls," Mr Gruber said.
"Unlike rock itself - changes to which take place over a very long
period of time - just a few decades of temperatures rising by a degree
or so are enough to affect the ice and water on the mountains."
"It's reasonable to expect the same processes are widespread
elsewhere in the Alps at the same altitude," he added.Dr Gruber noted
that his discovery might have important safety implications.
"In high altitudes, key cable-car structure in areas with icy clefts
might need to be checked carefully," he said.
- The Independent