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Appearance of explosive WWI relics underscores Alps glaciers' retreat

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The discovery was one of the more unusual manifestations of a phenomenon that has governments, economists, and environmentalists deeply worried.

Mountaineers and hikers are also seeing more avalanches and rock falls as the morphology of the Alps changes.

When a large iron cross tumbled from its pedestal on the summit of the Dolomites’ highest peak earlier this month, its collapse was blamed on its rock base fracturing as a result of melting permafrost.

Four days later, mountain climbers in Austria removed a similar cross from the 11,800-foot-high Grossvenediger peak because they feared it, too, had become dangerously unstable.

A worsening trend

More than half of the ice-covered area of the Alps has disappeared since 1850, the end of a cold spell known as the Little Ice Age. 

In the past 120 years, the Alps have undergone an “exceptionally high temperature increase of around two degrees centigrade,” according to the European Topic Center on Air and Climate Change, a consortium of European environmental institutes.

But even over the past few decades, there are clear changes to the Alps.

  • In the Austrian Tirol, some glaciers have retreated 22 feet in the past decade.
  • In Switzerland, skiers used to be able ski on four glaciers in the summer – now that number has dwindled to two.
  • In Italy’s Stelvio National Park in the Dolomites, glaciers have shrunk by up to 40 percent in the past 50 years.
  • At the other end of the Alpine range, in the Val d’Aosta region close to France, glaciers have been reduced in size by 27 percent in the past three decades.

There will be serious implications for tourism activities such as skiing, as well as agriculture, industry, and human habitation.

Glaciers currently release their meltwater during the summer, when it is most needed. That crucial supply will be drastically reduced as the ice masses disappear, affecting farming as well as industrial activity.

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