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.

There’s new life on the Austrian Alm

Will cheese-making give way to yoga?

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.

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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?”