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Graphic climate guide for hikers

01 October 2009

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A new device is becoming popular with hikers for studying the impact of global warming on the Alps. A GPS equipped iPhone provides a historical comparison of the glaciers and helps to locate rare flowers in the mountains.

In less than three months, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen to try to reach an agreement on tackling climate change.

Image credits: BBC/ The device allows hikers to compare glaciers now with 100 years ago

Environmental scientists say only a far-reaching deal to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions will prevent major environmental degradation, in the form of melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events such as droughts and floods.

But in many parts of the world, the effects of global warming are already very apparent, and they are forcing local communities to adapt, often at great expense.

"Alpine glaciers have retreated faster in the last 20 years"

The Alps, climatologists agree, are especially sensitive to global warming. Alpine glaciers have retreated faster in the last 20 years, losing around 25% of their surface area.

Now the Swiss region of the Jungfrau, which is classed as a UNESCO Heritage Site, is hoping to show the world exactly what global warming looks like, in the form of a graphic interactive guide along its hiking trails.

Graphic guide

The guide has been developed by the University of Berne's Institute for Climate Change, and uses the latest in modern technology – an iPhone complete with GPS.

Taking the iPhones, which are available from local tourist offices, along any one of seven Climate Change Hiking Trails, allows hikers to compare, for example, pictures of the glaciers 100 years ago with their condition now.

They can also see interviews with climatologists explaining how glaciers normally advance and retreat, and the devices can be used to identify rare alpine flowers, many of which are now growing in areas once covered by ice.

"We wanted to show people that climate change is already happening," said Kaspar Meuli of the Climate Change Institute.

"You can see the consequences already, it's happening now and here. We want to make people feel more concerned about this whole problem."

Crumbling mountains

Walking with Meuli up the trail towards the lower Grindelwald glacier provided a stark illustration of the problem.

"This area is of particular interest because there are many natural hazards due to climate change that can be witnessed here," he explained.

And sure enough, just as the climate guide instructs hikers to stop and examine a particular rock formation, the rock begins to crumble, and boulders roll down the mountainside.

The rockslide is the result of thawing permafrost, which once held the rock in place.

"This kind of thing is happening basically all the time now," said Meuli.

"Just two kilometres from here they had to build a special tunnel to protect the path from rock falls."

Disappearing restaurants

Image credits: BBC/ This restaurant collapsed into the valley three years ago

Closer to the glacier, or rather, closer to where the glacier used to be, there is another graphic example.

A brand new mountain restaurant welcomes hikers, but just a few hundred metres on, visitors can see where the old restaurant stood until three years ago.

Now the spot is a collapsed wall of earth and rock. As the glacier retreated, the ice stopped supporting the earth beneath the restaurant, the ground crumbled away, and the restaurant fell.

Such examples are not only stark evidence of the fact that global warming is already damaging the planet, they are also forcing local communities into costly and complicated protection measures.

A particular danger caused by the melting glaciers is the excess water.

As the lower Grindelwald glacier melts, the levels of the glacial lake are rising, threatening to flood the villages in the valley hundreds of metres below.

Now the local community is spending almost $15m (£9.4) to build a complicated series of run-off tunnels, drilling through the mountain and up to the lake, in a bid to give the water a safe route down.

"This is a good example of the consequences of global warming," explained tunnel engineer Nils Haehlen.

"With the melting of the glacier this lake becomes bigger and bigger and so does the danger. So we are building these tunnels to try to lower the level of the lake."

New foundations

Right across the Alps, similar measures are under way.

Many cable car stations are built into permafrost; now that the permafrost is thawing, the stations have to have new foundations.

It's not the kind of information you would expect tourist boards to want to spread around too much - after all, the Alpine economy depends on tourists enjoying themselves, not worrying about rock falls or floods.

Nevertheless Sammy Salm, of the Jungfrau tourist office, believes the new interactive climate guide is a way to show visitors the reality of what's happening to the mountains.

"Up here you can really see what climate change does to nature, what it does to our mountains"

"First of all it's a cool tool, and our visitors like it," he said.

But more importantly, he pointed out, it is a way to confront the public with the consequences of climate change, and perhaps spur them to action.

"Up here you can really see what climate change does to nature, what it does to our mountains," he explained.

"I think with this we can really raise the awareness of each individual person about what's actually happening, and then also maybe make them more sensitive to their own daily behaviour about how they use resources."

Source : BBC

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