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.

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

Starting at 10 a.m. Sept. 9

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.

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 sudden warming in the European Alps

Does industrial soot play a role in the meltdown of Alpine glaciers?

How long will the European Alps remain snow-clad? Photo courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.

By Summit Voice

With temperatures in the European Alps rising twice as fast as the global average, there’s little hope of saving some of the world’s most famous glaciers without immediate and significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

And there’s little doubt that the warming is caused by those emissions. Findings from a new study show the sudden onset of warming about 30 years ago. The study, led by researchers with the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State, offers new and compelling evidence that the Italian Alps are warming at an unprecedented rate. Continue reading “Study shows sudden warming in the European Alps”

Alpine plants and animals sprinting uphill in response to global warming

Research documents rapid ecosystem shifts

Swiss researchers document global warming impacts to alpine ecosystems. bberwyn photo.

By Bob Berwyn

Swiss researchers taking a close look at the effect of global warming say that plants, birds and butterflies sprinted uphill by anywhere from eight to 42 meters between 2003 and 2010 — a significant shift in a very short time, according to the study published in the online journal Plos One. Other research has shown that, in general, European bird and butterfly communities have moved on average 37 and 114 kilometers to the north, respectively. Continue reading “Alpine plants and animals sprinting uphill in response to global warming”

The world’s mountain regions are warming swiftly

North Tenmile Creek trail, Frisco Colorado
Global warming will have profound impacts on mountain ecosystems, @bberwyn photo.

Scientists say there’s an urgent need for more widespread data collection and observations from high elevations

By Bob Berwyn

A new scientific report from climate scientists says the world’s highest mountains may be warming much faster than than the global average — and faster than previously thought.

Most of all, the researchers said more monitoring and observations of mountain temperature patterns are needed to assess the high-elevation changes. Continue reading “The world’s mountain regions are warming swiftly”

Global warming is heating up Austria’s lakes

Waters expected to warm by up to degrees 3 degrees Celsius by mid-century

Global warming is projected to fundamentally alter the waters of famed Austrian lakes like the Mondsee, near Salzburg. Bob Berwyn photo.

By Bob Berwyn

Austria’s famed alpine lakes are facing fundamental change as global temperatures continue to warm. The Alpine region as a whole warmed three times as fast as the global average between 1980 and 1999.

Projected increases in water temperatures will likely alter basic structure, function and water quality in famed lakes like the Mondsee, near Salzburg, according to Dr. Martin Dokulil, a retired researcher from the Institute for Limnology at the University of Innsbruck in Austria.

Dokulil analyzed long-term data records for air temperature and surface water temperatures dating back to the mid-1960s from the Austrian Hydrological Yearbooks. He projected temperature trends for nine large lakes, finding that lake surface temperatures are likely to rise by up to 3 degrees Celsius by 2050 as a direct result of climate change. Continue reading “Global warming is heating up Austria’s lakes”

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?”