Massive Austrian mountain landslides linked to glacier melt

Sentinel satellites offer near real-time data on Earth changes

Before and after satellite images show newly scoured landslide tracks in bright relief in the picture on the right. Photo courtesy

By Bob Berwyn

VIENNA — Massive, three-mile-long landslides in the mountains of central Austria in late July destroyed roads and bridges, and new satellite images provide clues that link the damage with melting glaciers.

Some of Austria’s recent large landslides started in high mountain basins, where glaciers are retreating at a record pace. The mix of rocks and silt left uncovered by the melting ice are particularly vulnerable to being mobilized by extreme rainstorms, according to researchers studying the latest data from the Sentinel satellites.

The entire ZAMG release (in German) is here:

English summary:

The European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellites have beamed back detailed before-and-after images of the scars. The slides carried material from the glacial moraine all the way to the valley, along paths nearly two miles long. The glacial rubble is susceptible to erosion because there’s no vegetation to hold the material in place — plant growth hasn’t come close to keeping pace with the retreating ice, the scientists said.

“The new satellite photos offer timely evidence that climate change is reshaping Austria’s mountains, especially the highest regions,” said Anette Bartsch, a climatologist with Austria’s federal weather and climate bureau. Mountain landslides have become increasingly common in recent years and have resulted in some of the most costly climate-related damages in Austria.

“With a systematic analysis of the satellite data, we can identify areas that are vulnerable to climate change impacts and evaluate the necessity for mitigation, including measures like catch basins, walls and even putting some areas off limits to development,” she said.

The latest satellite images were taken above the mountains surrounding Bad Gastein, a popular tourist town in the Hohen Tauern region of the Alps. Heavy thunderstorms on July 31 unleashed the massive debris flows, scouring channels that could carry future slides even farther.

Austria is one of the few countries with open, free access to the Sentinel satellite data, part of the European Copernicus Initiative. Access to the data is in the framework of an agreement between federal science and infrastructure agencies, evaluated at More information here: ->Daten der Sentinel-Erdbeobachtung-Satelliten in Österreich kostenfrei abrufbar.


Where have all the farmers gone?

Along the Alpine Trail …

Alm wall
An ancient stone wall marks the edge of an Alm pasture in the Weißenbach Valley, a headwaters tributary in the Salzkammergut Lakes region of upper Austria.

High along the Weissenbach above Strobl, in the headwaters of the Traun River, the stone wall at pasture’s edge has been there so long it’s become part of the landscape, with swirled layers of moss and granite a testament to how Austrian mountain dwellers have sculpted the high country for centuries. We discovered the wall after visiting a mountain dairy in the Postalm Region. The high plateau is one the largest contiguous grazing zones in this part of the Alps. In the winter, the pastures are downhill and crosscountry ski trails. As part of the the special reporting project on sustainable mountain agriculture supported by the Earth Journalism Network and Internews, we’ve traveled across Austria’s mountains to speak with farmers, environmentalists and scientists about the importance of preserving these cultural and natural landscapes.

We also try to stop and let the landscapes touch us visually, understanding how the care by alpine farmers helps keep the land healthy, promoting biodiversity and soil stability in the face of ever-increasing severe rainstorms in the area. A few weeks ago, we tracked down Siegfried Ellmauer, formerly the offical Alm inspector of the Upper Austrian state government. For 12 years, he not only worked to sustain existing grazing allotments, but spearheaded a grassroots restoration project to revive about a dozen of the region’s highest Alms. We spent several hours interviewing Ellmauer at his mountain farm and Gasthaus above Spital am Pyhrn. In this video excerpt, he speaks about the quality of the produce from alpine agriculture, and about how there’s a need to maintain the open pastures for environmental, cultural and social regions. Politicians may pay lip service to the idea of supporting the small grazing operations, but reality looks different, as national policies seem to align more with the big-is-better theory of economics.

Many of the dairy products and meats like smoked hams and sausages are consumed right where they are made, by tourists and hungry hikers who venture into the mountains. Maintaining small operations like the Schnitzhof Alm dairy, with just a few dozen cows, is not easy in the age of globalization, but operating a cozy restaurant and deli counter is a way of spreading the word about the sustainable, local food they produce.


There also a strong cultural aspect to alm life. Ringing the cowbell above the table signifies that you’re buying the next round, which means the accordion player will certainly sing another song, Many of the lyrics of the ditties praise the natural virtues of the mountain landscapes — special rare flowers, crystalline rock, clean air and icy streams. When we visited the Herrnalm on the Dürrenstein Mountains in Lower Austria, we sat with this group of friends who had wandered to the Alm for an afternoon of social music and drinking locally made apple cider and wine.

The cowbells on the pastures offer a simple melody for passers-by, but they many different tones enable the herders to track individual animals through forest or patchy mountain fog.


Study shows varying global warming impacts in different mountain areas

Elevation of glaciers key to future runoff

Scientists are trying to pinpoint the impacts of global warming on Himalayan glaciers and regional water supplies. Photo courtesy Nasa Earth Observatory.
Scientists are trying to pinpoint the impacts of global warming on Himalayan glaciers and regional water supplies. Photo courtesy Nasa Earth Observatory.

Projecting global warming impacts in mountainous regions has been difficult for researchers, as drastic contrasts in terrain over short distances challenges climate models. Now, a new study by scientists from ETH Zurich and Utrecht University shows there will be different responses in different parts of the world.

In a new study, they looked closely at the water balance of two regions; the upper Langtang valley in Nepal and Juncal region of the central Andes in Chile, which are both important watersheds for millions of people. Both areas include peaks rising over 6,000 metres and glaciers that help sustain rivers. Continue reading “Study shows varying global warming impacts in different mountain areas”