STUBAI GLACIER, Austria—Alois Ranalter was standing on a field of fleece-like fabric laid out over what remained of the winter snow here one recent day when he decided to illustrate just what has happened to this glacier.
He pointed up to a tiny white sign, about 50 feet above his head on a dark rock face. "When I started working here," he said, "that sign was about chest high. We've lost a lot of glacier since then."
The Stubai glacier isn't Austria's biggest nor its most important. But the battle that Ranalter and others are waging to prevent the glacier from further melting is among the country's most watched and is crucial to the region's economic future.
Ranalter is standing on what's currently the great hope of those seeking to save Stubai. The material feels like felt and is spread out around him over an area equal to two football fields.
The covered area stands almost three feet taller than the uncovered snow surrounding it, and that's very good news. It means the construction felt has served as a sun-reflecting blanket, stopping the summer melt that's been shrinking the glacier for years.
Scientists say the construction material is far too expensive and labor intensive to save entire glaciers. But in this corner of the Alps, where winter sports are the economic lifeline, glacier scientists and businesses alike are finding hope in the experiment amid a growing concern that global warming is slowly eliminating Europe's one-time massive glacial ice.
"Our priority is the sustainable development of the Stubai region, while keeping the jobs we have," said Caroline Suitner, whose organization represents many local tourism-related businesses. "We have very long winters here, and the proceeds from the winter season cover our summer expenses. We hope this will be the case in the future as well."
Glaciers are the canary in the mine for global warming studies: The oldest ones have been around for 10,000 years, others for 200 and the youngest for 50 years.
Their rapid disappearance reflects a dramatic climate shift. The average temperature in the Alps has increased about two degrees in the past 100 years, about twice the increase in the rest of Europe. In another 100 years, all but the very highest Alpine glaciers will have vanished, scientists say.
The impact will be on more than the scenery. Glaciers feed mountain water supplies in Austria, Italy, France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Without them, towns will face water shortages. In Switzerland, glacial runoff is vital to power production.
"It's not just the loss of tourism for mountain communities, it's a fundamental change in an ecosystem, so yes, we're very concerned," said Barbara Helfferich, a spokeswoman for the European Union's environment commission.
For glaciologist Marc Olefs, preserving the scenery is enough for now. As the only full-time employee of the Active Glacier Protection Project, his job is to figure out how to prevent the Stubai from melting.
In the mid-1800s, the Stubai covered almost six square miles. Now it's less than two square miles and 50 to 100 yards thick. That makes it a relatively small glacier; on the same mountainside as Stubai is the Hintereisferner glacier, which is twice its size and thickness.
But Stubai has two important attributes: It's easy to get to—one needs only to buy a lift ticket to reach it—and its economic importance means there's money to fund the research.
The key to saving Stubai is to stop the summer melt of glacial ice. When the glacier was growing, more snow would fall each winter than would melt each summer. The snow would rest atop the glacial ice, protecting it from sunlight. After 15 years, the snow would become glacial ice, adding a new layer to the glacier. New snowfall would protect it from the sun's rays, and the glacier would grow.
But when the winter snow melts before the end of the summer, the glacial ice is exposed to direct sun. Because the glacial ice is dark gray, it absorbs the sun's heat quickly and melts.
Since the 1970s, the Stubai glacier has lost as much as four inches of glacial ice a day during the summers.
To counter that, the researchers came up with three ideas in 2003 intended to stop the glacier's slow disappearance.
The first was to inject highly pressurized water into the glacier during the coldest parts of winter. The idea was that the water would freeze and the glacier would grow. It didn't work.
The second was to heavily compact the snow on top of the glacier, hoping that more denser snow would be slower to melt. That didn't work either.
The third idea was to cover the glacier with felt after the last winter snow to keep the snow from melting.
That worked, reducing snow melt by 60 percent.
"We actually had snow left at the beginning of the next snow season," Olefs said.
The scientists experimented with a variety of covers before hitting on the one they're using now, which costs about $2 per square yard. That makes it affordable to cover smallish areas of the glacier that nearby businesses, such as ski lifts and restaurants, consider important economically.
Still, the material is too expensive to cover the whole glacier, and it would probably take too long to put out and pick up the felt—the material must be rolled up before the first snowfall of winter or it would become trapped under the snow.
"Covering the entire glacier, beyond costing a fortune, isn't possible right now," Olefs said.
As for what to do with the disappearing glaciers throughout Europe, scientists have come up with few plans. They note that in addition to the greenhouse gases that humans generate that contribute to global warming, a natural warming spell has been shrinking glaciers for 5,000 years.
From atop the Stubai Glacier, Ranalter has watched that happen for 30 years, since he arrived here, first as a day laborer, then later as a ski instructor.
"We used to hold ski-racing camp, in the summer, way downhill," he said, looking out on a cascade of rock walls that used to be invisible. "It's all just rock now."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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