Last Monday, authorities in the French Alps once again issued a warning to alpinists asking them to behave responsibly and postpone all attempts to climb to the top of the Mont Blanc (4808m). The combined effects of climate change together with the heatwave recently affecting western Europe, have amplified the fall of dangerous rocks on the busiest route up to the summit, known as the “Voie du Goûter”, but increasingly nick-named the “corridor of death” due to summer accidents.
Mountain guides are now every year forced to interrupt their working season early August as the conditions for high altitude mountaineering in the second half of summer are vanishing steadily but surely. And while tourists still flock to Chamonix and enjoy wearing T-shirts in the evening in a place where sweaters were not long ago mandatory all through the year, the Mont Blanc has become one of the most monitored mountains on Earth, with captors everywhere.
Many in the Valley, whether professionals, inhabitants or elected representatives, worry about the unequivocal effects of the climate emergency, what to do, how to adapt and which plans to develop for the future.
Why it’s important: in the Alps, temperature increase is twice the world’s average since pre-industrial times: +2°C compared to slightly above 1°C. The most realistic scenario for 2050, less than a generation away, is another extra 2 to 3°C, meaning a cumulated temperature increase of 4 to 5°C.
Summer months will be more impacted - meaning hotter with episodes of drought - than winter, but presence of snow below 2000m altitude will drop sharply, by at least 4 to 5 weeks per year.
The speed of transformation of mountain ecosystems is in fact stunning and visible, bringing along both immediate and long-term natural risks, threats to biodiversity, water management dilemmas, and of course human impacts for inhabitants.
From glaciers to the history of glaciers: the most obvious marker is the retreat of the glaciers, well described in both reports and media.
In fact, the science is tragically clear: glaciers in the Mont Blanc, like in most of the Alps, are condemned by the human emissions of carbon dioxide and their impact on the Earth’s systems. By the end of the century, the glacier d’Argentière is almost certain to totally disappear, and the Mer de Glace will lose at least 80% of its ice mass. What will remain is an ice cap in very high altitude areas of the Massif.
With key features of the Mont Blanc slipping away, there is an awkward sense that a page of history, started in the mid-nineteenth century with the first British alpinists, is slowly being turned. The traditional visit to the ice caves of the Mer de Glace is now giving way to tours of the new Glaciorum, a fascinating museum dedicated to the history and future evolution of glaciers. And alpinism - the pride of the valley of Chamonix - has on its side been selected in February 2020 by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity”. A sign of the times?
The economic paradox for Chamonix: with its economy almost exclusively turned towards tourism, safety considerations for people and economic sustainability come as first priorities. High altitude climate plans are developed to adapt infrastructure to the future climate and enable the continuation of sport activities across the four seasons. Investments to prevent deadly avalanches, such as the “barrage du Taconnaz”, now come at a higher price for local communities. Even the costly new works for the World Cup Kandahar ski slope are questioned by some inhabitants as snow in the medium altitude station of Les Houches will become drastically scarcer by 2035.
All seems done to maintain as long as possible the fundamentals that have ensured the unique reputation of Chamonix as a resort as well as employment and profits for the ski industry. In many ways, professionals know that for a good part of the 21st century, Chamonix will remain among the last functioning snow stations, thanks to the Mont Blanc, and is equipping itself to take the greatest advantage of this situation. In fact, while the bell tolls for the glaciers and lower altitude resorts close one after the other, the paradox is that even more tourists may flock into the valley of Chamonix in search of the remaining snow.
The future, which direction? As of today, the Climate Plan adopted in 2010 and the European cooperation programme Adapt are the backbone of the community’s response to the long-term existential challenge they are facing in terms of mitigation of carbon emissions and adaptation to the consequences. Initiatives are numerous, whether to boost public transport with more trains, create micro-power hydraulic stations to become more autonomous in energy or experiment hydrogen based lifts in closeby Saint-Gervais.
But protection of the Massif, security of the infrastructure and further boosting today’s strengths in mountain tourism may reach their limits when in two or three decades global warming in the Valley will have reached + 4/5°C. As Corinne Saltzmann, a local specialist in sustainable development points out in her interview, anticipation and diversification of the economy is key for the future of the valley’s inhabitants. New ways of working and living will have to be urgently explored, trialled and found.
Unlike several cities or territories around the world and despite being on the frontline of global warming, the administration in Chamonix has surprisingly not yet adopted a “net zero” target for its territorial emissions, the only credible way to stabilize the climate by mid-century. While France has adopted carbon neutrality as a national objective set in legislation, plans are in fact far from being aligned at the level of small towns and villages and champions are missing.
The bottomline: in its confrontation with the climate countdown, the Valley of Chamonix is the perfect illustration of philosopher Bruno Latour’s famous question: where to land? As rocks fall this August and artificial snow machines are getting geared up for the next ski season, it may be time to start thinking and acting differently. The gap between the understanding of the problem and action remains enormous and the melting Mont Blanc reminds us of it every day.