Join us for a social media ecology trek in the Austrian Alps

Starting at 10 a.m. Sept. 9

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Mountain meadow in the eastern Alps. @bberwyn photo.

Some of the best information on how global warming is reshaping the world’s mountains comes from networks of long-term ecological research sites, where scientists have documented significant changes in stream, meadow and forest ecosystems.

Establishing a long and continuous record of data from consistent locations is key to evaluating the impacts of climate change and other influences. Again and again, scientists advocate for more resources to take those measurements as the best way to help us adapt for coming changes.

This Friday, September 9, we will be in the field with an Austrian scientists who is measuring plant communities in traditional mountain pastures in and around Gesäuse National Park, near the town of Admont, Styria, with a lunch visit to the Kölblalm.

We’ll stream parts of our interview live via Twitter and Instagram, where readers can post questions or comments about global warming impacts in the Alps. We’ll pass the questions along to our scientist guide, or try to answer them from the reporting we’ve done for the project. We’ll also post a short update here on the blog after the visit.Contact us if you’d like to receive notifications of future posts.

In the Rocky Mountains, for example, long-term research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory near Crested Butte, Colorado, has yielded a treasure trove of climate findings. The summer wildflower season is already a month longer than just a few decades ago; but birds and bugs who follow the seasons are out of synch with important food sources, according to University of Maryland Biology Professor David Inouye.

In the Alps, weather records go back even farther, and researchers have documented significant mount warming, at twice the global rate around some of the range’s highest peaks, consistent with the steady, decades-long decline of Alpine glaciers. During an intense 2015 summer heatwave, some of Austria’s glaciers melted back hundreds of feet.

Check our recent project update with photo galleries and video clips from our reporting here.

And learn a little bit about life on a high-mountain dairy farm here.

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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.

 

There’s new life on the Austrian Alm

Will cheese-making give way to yoga?

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The Postalm regions claims one of the largest concentrated areas of alpine pastures.

In the Schnitzhof Alm dairy, workers rotate and clean wheels of fragrant cheese. After several months of aging, the product is sold in thick wedges to hungy hikers in the restaurant upstairs.

The video was shot through a wire mesh door kept closed to prevent unwanted contaminants in the cheese room.

The milk comes from 24 cows that graze moist green pastures all around. Many of of Austria’s high mountain grazing regions support a locally based micro-economy that benefits the environment and promotes the sustainability of the traditional summer pasturing practices. But not all of the Alms have been able to fight the rising economic tide of globalization and centralization. While official government policy is to promote mountain agriculture, there is also political pressure to produce at a scale that’s viable in the global economy. How to do both remains a challenge.


Austria’s mountain farms and pastures are an integral part of the cultural and environmental landscape. Driving cattle up to alpine grazing meadows, called Alms, started as soon as humans began keeping cattle, and the first officially recorded mention of an Alm came in 1212, more than 800 years ago. The rapid changes of climate and global politics and economics have sent waves rippling through institutions that have existed for centuries, and the mountain pasture way of life in Austria may be endangered.

Many of the long-time herders who track their flocks over the hills say they’ve felt the changes. Spring has been coming several weeks earlier than just 20 years ago, which means driving the cattle up the mountain much earlier. That changes the timing of when workers are needed in the dairy farms, and also affects the timing of the bloom in the hay and pasture fields. In turn, those changes may affect insects and birds that also depend on finding food at a certain time.

Economically, the new world of the European Union and global free trade has marginalized the products from the Alm economy. Big feedlots can certainly produce more concentrated amounts of beef more quickly than the laborious process of fattening cattle on mountain grasses. But is that what the world really needs?

In any case, some Alms have adapted by shifting their focus to recreation. In the Krippenstein Mountains of Upper Austria, the Gjaidalm has focused on offering wellness retreats, yoga workshops and foot massages, and there’s a petting zoo, with pygmy goats and pigs. But the pastures around the hut (first tended in the Bronze Age) only see a dozen cows per year, well below the official allotment. That means the grasses aren’t being grazed enough to maintain plant diversity.

Follow us on Twitter and Instagram to learn more about the changing world of Austrian Alms.

Can the Hockbärneckalm survive global warming?

Climate change threatens mountain agriculture in the Alps

Hochbärneck Alm Austria
The Hochbärneck Alm (900 meters) in Lower Austria’s Alpine region. @bberwyn photo.

Supported by the Earth Journalism Network and Internews

By Bob Berwyn

LOWER AUSTRIA — Austria’s high alpine pastures, called Alms, are an important part of the country’s cultural tradition. For centuries, herders have driven cattle and sheep up and down the sides of the mountains following seasonal cycles of plant growth and snow melt.

The livestock grazing is managed mindfully to promote vegetation growth and biodiversity. It may be a difficult concept to grasp at first, but the rhythm of alpine grazing actually fosters biodiversity. Orchids, medicinal herbs and wildflowers thrive in the clearings and create lush green open patches in the landscape that are aesthetically pleasing. Continue reading “Can the Hockbärneckalm survive global warming?”