Climate change and mass tourism threaten the Alps | Human factor | DW
Scientists traversing the Alps this summer say the region has been marked by significant environmental and social changes since they traveled the same path from Vienna to Nice 25 years ago. Much of what they found was alarming.
At lower elevations, forests are drying out and tree-killing beetles are spreading. The orchards were damaged by the extreme weather conditions in the spring, as severe cold spells follow the early warming. Among the peaks, some glaciers have retreated as far as the eye can see, and the permafrost that holds the rocks together is melting.
Extreme rainstorms have become more frequent, causing increasingly large landslides that reshape the sides of the mountains, so much so that the path of the hike had to be changed in some places. Some historic trails have collapsed, and melting Alpine glaciers this summer have disgorged several bodies of climbers who disappeared decades ago.
“These are all signs of climate change,” says Swiss geographer Harry Spiess, one of four mountain specialists and one of WhatsApp tour organizers.
“Everyone is aware of this, but nobody is changing their attitude in terms of mitigation,” he says. “Times have changed. In politics and politics, attention has shifted to global issues like terrorism and migration.”
In Austria’s Dürrenstein Wilderness region, near the Whatsalp trek route, forester and wildlife biologist Stefan Schörghuber (centre, with stick) explains the ecological benefits of wilderness to a group of private forest owners and of farmers in the region
Hikers and refugees
Since migration controls were tightened in the Balkan region last year, the Alps have become a main route for refugees from Africa and the Middle East on their way to northern Europe. Meeting refugees on an alpine hiking trail would have been unheard of 25 years ago; today it’s more than likely on some of the trails in the Franco-Italian border region.
No one anticipated this scale of migration 25 years ago, and it’s now a bigger concern for many people than environmental preservation or climate change, Spiess said, speaking to DW of Briançon, one of the few Alpine towns to have made an effort to directly deal with the worldwide demographic shocks of migration.
In the era of globalization, the ramparts of the Alps no longer isolate the region. When we last hiked 25 years ago, no one had foreseen the economic boom in Asia, which has completely transformed tourism in the Alps. Mass tourism is on the rise, leading to more highways, large hotels and parking lots, all indications that the region has yet to adopt a more sustainable strategy for the future.
“It’s not yet strong enough to destroy the Alps, but there is still a long way to go to fully realize the region’s sustainable development goals,” says Spiess.
Protecting rivers in the Alps can be part of a regional adaptation strategy to make ecosystems and communities more resilient to climate change
The tourist development of certain Alpine valleys has extended beyond the reception capacity of the territory. In some areas, the expected impacts of climate change will threaten the very existence of communities.
Climate models predict that the southern mountains will experience more drought and heat waves, but also more extreme rainfall and snowfall. The northern foothills will rarely see snow in the future and will be vulnerable to flooding from more powerful Atlantic storms.
Signs of hope?
Dominik Siegrist, a Swiss landscape architect and geographer who also took part in the 1992 trek, says this summer’s three-month trek shows just how diverse the Alpine region and burgeoning grassroots community advocacy groups are. the keys to the future. Local activism and civic engagement has increased significantly since the initial hike.
“A big stage, a big community of alpine people are working on these challenges,” says Siegrist, speaking to DW from Rifugio W. Jervis, a mountain retreat on the border of Italy and France.
Biologist Dr Andreas Boehner describes how global warming can alter soil moisture in mountain pastures, thereby altering plant composition
Efforts include scientific research, projects to promote sustainable agriculture and tourism, and many new local, regional and international initiatives to expand and add conservation areas like parks. In addition, activist groups are working across national borders to fight intrusive projects like a proposed road link between Munich and Venice, as well as the expansion of ski areas to new and ever higher ground.
Siegrist hopes the Whatsalp hike will help inspire more people to join these efforts, through a targeted youth outreach effort as well as a social media presence, near-daily blogging, and extensive media coverage in the German-language media.
The hike itself is a basic project. It’s partly crowdfunded and there’s an open invitation to join the band at any time along the way, including the final stages through Italy and France, as well as the festivities from September 29th to October. arrival in Nice, France. Along the way, the team met with local groups more than 110 times.
Whatsalp hikers passed through mountain pastures that sustainably produce local food
One such group was a network of climbing villages in Austria called “Bergsteigerdörfer”, which promotes sustainable, low-impact, non-motorized recreation and tourism.
There has also been an increase in agriculture-related tourism, organic farming and cattle grazing in mountain pastures, which helps preserve cultural and environmental landscapes and benefits local economies, says Siegrist.
Until Europe and the world move in a more sustainable direction, he expects the region to continue to face the same environmental and economic pressures that have persisted over the past 25 years, pressures which will only be aggravated by climate change.