Austrian ski resorts to wrap up snow to stop melting

DESPERATE MEASURES: Sheets of plastic foil will be rolled out at Austrian resorts this summer in a bid to counter melting caused by rising global temperatures


Thu, Mar 24, 2005 - Page 6

Austrian glacier ski regions are covering parts of their precious ice with sheets of plastic foil during the summer months in an effort to counter increased melting levels causing by rising global temperatures.

What might first appear a whim has deadly serious undertones. Global warming is rapidly encroaching on the one-time regions of "eternal snow" located at 2,500m or higher.

Melting glaciers are disastrous to the environment. The whole water content of a mountain range may be lost with inestimable effects on plant and animal life. Experts predict that by the year 2050, two-thirds of all Alpine glaciers will be gone.

A desperate situation calls for desperate measures.

"The first test with us was last year -- only a small area," said the manager of Stubai Glacier Mountain Railways in Tyrol, Sepp Rauter, in the newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten.

In the experiment, 2,000m2 of glacier ice were covered with the plastic foil over the summer. There was considerable success.

"We were able to keep 2m of snow," Rauter said.

The points chosen for the foil were at lift supports. He explained that they were of crucial importance, as ice and snow melting around them could change the whole makeup of a ski area.

Due to the success last year, the sheets are to be rolled out at Stubai again, and also at the Tyrolean glacier resorts of Oetztal and Pitztal, Rauter said. The exercise will be monitored by the Innsbruck Institute of Meteorology and Geophysics, which will also test the suitability of various materials to the job.

A Swiss glacier expert, Martin Funk, was quoted by media as saying his country was also adopting the Austrian idea.

"The foil reflects almost all incident radiation. That strongly reduces the melting procedure," he said.

However, the foil is only suitable for small areas, as otherwise the process of covering the glaciers becomes technically difficult and expensive. One area in Switzerland starting in May would be the mountain railways at the resort of Andermatt. It would cost about 64,000 euros (US$83,600) to cover 3,000m2.

Each summer's heat does increasing damage to the fragile high Alpine world. But the record summer of 2003 was particularly harmful.

Experts cite the case of Austria's biggest glacier, the Pasterze, located at the foot of the country's highest mountain, the 3,800m Grossglockner.

In 2003 alone, the Pasterze lost 30m in length, nearly twice the annual average, and 6.5m in thickness. Geologists calculated that 24 million cubic meters of water melted from the ice and flowed down the mountain.