Climate crisis in the high mountains: The not so eternal ice

The climate crisis is extremely visible in the Alps. André Baumeister shows young people where glaciers are melting - and what that has to do with us.

A thawing glacier in front of a bright blue sky

The ice is retreating: view of the Gurgler Ferner in the Ötztal, 2021 Photo: Michael Krabs

It's a steep climb. We gasp under the weight of the huge backpacks. The path leads through the deserted high mountains past rugged rock faces. There is a menacing rumble in the distance, there is no time for a break. We must reach the self-catering cabin before the thunderstorm. An hour earlier, the hardships - perhaps in combination with too much Kaiserschmarren - had already claimed their first victim. One student vomited and descended back to base camp with the help of a teacher.

We reach the saving shelter. "Fidelitas Hütte" is written on a sign that is attached to the outside of the light wooden wall. "2883 meters - built 1896". Inside: a corner seat, a table, three chairs and bunk beds. There is room for a maximum of ten people, in the corner there is a white wood-burning stove for heating and cooking. There is no electricity, only candles. On the wall hangs a picture of a snow-covered mountain and – as befits arch-catholic Tyrol – a cross. Then comes what the thunder had announced: Within a few minutes, the surrounding mountains can no longer be seen, while fetching water, thick raindrops lash us horizontally in the face. There is tea and pasta with pesto. The young people agree that they have never tasted as good as they do at this moment.

André Baumeister, geographer and excursion leader

"The students are the decision-makers of tomorrow and those affected by climate change"

You are part of a 50-strong group of 15 to 19-year-old students, their teachers and scientists. In the Ötztal Alps, they are researching the effects of climate change as part of the first Alpine Climate Summit. “The Ötztal glaciers are the perfect place for it. Nowhere else in Central Europe can you see the effects of global warming so clearly,” explains André Baumeister. The geographer and excursion didactic is a lecturer at the Ruhr University Bochum and had the idea for the Alpine Climate Summit, which he and his students are holding for the first time this year - on a voluntary basis. Together with schoolchildren, they climb into the Alps and want to make the climate crisis more tangible. Climate education is also anchored in the curricula of the federal states through the action program "Education for Sustainable Development" of the United Nations - for Baumeister it is a life's work.

"The students are the decision-makers of tomorrow and those affected by climate change," he says. But you don't just have to sensitize them to the climate crisis, you also have to show them the connections. Excursion didactics plays a central role for him. The term sustainability can actually be filled with content using the example of alpine farming, and the change in vegetation due to climate change can also be clearly seen in the Alps. You can take the students to a Demeter farm and explain sustainable agriculture, but they don't see the effects of the climate crisis very directly there. For this you need graphs and tables. And Baumeister doesn't find that very tangible. “An excursion to the Alps creates experiences. This allows the students to remember things much better than in class,” he says.

The best symbol for climate change

Baumeister's project is important: in Switzerland and in Austria ice loss was extreme this summer, some glaciers are melting faster than ever before. Five high schools from North Rhine-Westphalia and Berlin are taking part in the excursion. "Piefkes" would be said to the students here in Austria, because none of them have mountain experience. The project is partly supported by excursion funds from the schools. One of the teachers also asked the municipality and the state for financial support, and even a member of the Bundestag then tried to get the project started, but unfortunately without success.

At daybreak the thunderstorm has passed. The youngsters stand wide-eyed in front of the Gurgler Ferner. The third largest glacier in Tyrol shines in the morning sun between the peaks lined with veiled clouds. The mountains that surround it are streaked with layers of red, green, and brown. Here and there you can see turquoise blue ponds fed by meltwater.

Baumeister traced the extent of the glacier back to 1850. "There is no better symbol for man-made climate change than glaciers," he emphasizes, "you can actually watch them melt." Based on the glacial forms such as ground, lateral and end moraines, he recognizes how big the Gurgler Ferner once was. "The movement of the glacier crushed the rock and cleared it out of the way," explains the geologist. Beneath us lie yellowish blocks of marble: "They actually come from the adjacent Schneeberg complex and can only have been transported here by the glacier."

The students will now become researchers themselves and will be given a GPS device to record the present-day form of the Gurgl Glacier. The ice creaks and cracks dully under their feet as they trudge along the rugged glacier tongue, small gray box in hand. All around them it gurgles and bubbles, water flows out of the ice everywhere.

Baumeister waves at them from a distance. "This is where the glacier was three years ago," he exclaims. He has since retreated 45 meters from this spot. "It's amazing how much has melted in such a short time," says Nick, one of the students. At the front, the measured side arm of the glacier has even receded by 120 meters in the last five years. You can't imagine that, Nick thinks. But still much better here on site than in normal classes. The descent leads over a ridge of rubble. Luisa asks if we are now on the lateral moraine. "Exactly, well recognized," praises Baumeister. On the left it goes about 100 meters steeply downhill to the bottom of the valley. "It's unbelievable that 150 years ago all of this was still filled with ice up to our feet," marvels Luisa.

vegetation mapping and alpine farming

Back at the base camp, the Langtalereckhütte, hut host Georg Gufler tells about his childhood. He is 45 years old and grew up here. "40 years ago you could still see the Gurgler Ferner from the hut. Since then, 200 meters of altitude have melted.” He points to a black-and-white photo on the wall. On it you can see the Langtalereckhütte and below it a huge, ridged mass of ice. "That was in 1932, when the glacier still went all the way to the hut." Today it is about three kilometers further back.

The next day we head up the mountain, this time to the 3,233 meter high Eiskögele. Along the way, the youngsters continue their vegetation mapping that they started before climbing up into the high mountains. With pen and paper, they note which plants can be found at which height. A wildly branched green shrub with pink flowers grows along the way. Lea recognizes the plant: "It's a rust-leaved alpine rose, a climate indicator plant." With increasing global warming, you can find them at higher and higher altitudes, because the altitude levels of the vegetation are migrating further upwards. In addition to the melting of the glaciers, this shift in plant life towards the summit is the most obvious change caused by climate change in the Alps.

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Next to the group of students, a flock of sheep climbs lightly up the mountain. The students have already become acquainted with this form of agriculture, alpine farming. On the Gleirschalm Baumeister showed them how sustainable alpine farming works the day before they left for the high mountains. In the summer, the cows graze across alternating alpine meadows instead of being fed in the barn with food specially grown for them. As a result, the soil is not depleted and even increases the diversity of species on the alpine meadows. "Alpine farming takes place within the limits of the resources that are sustainably available." However, since not everyone can be supplied with meat every day, one sometimes has to do without it. "In the future I will think twice about whether I really need something or whether there is a more climate-friendly alternative," says Hugo.

Back at the Innsbruck University research center in Obergurgl, the students reflect on the experiences of the past week. "In the short time here I have learned more about sustainability and climate change than in several weeks of classes," says Timo. Nick also finds it “much more effective to experience something like this on site”, and Luisa feels the same way, “because here you can see with your own eyes what climate change is causing. That makes you very aware of it.” She also learned how important it is to communicate climate change so that more people understand the problem. "That's why we want to present the project to the other students in our school," says Hugo. The students want to pass on what they have learned. "We all have to think about what we can do to ensure that the situation doesn't get any worse," says Nick.

André Baumeister is proud that the young people got the message. Another Alpine Climate Summit is planned for next year, for which he is still looking for supporters.

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