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UKC/UKH Joins Covering Climate Now Campaign

UKClimbing.com and UKHillwalking.com are joining over 300 media outlets worldwide as part of the Covering Climate Now initiative to increase and improve coverage on climate change. The project is a joint initiative of The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review, in which outlets are maximising coverage of the climate crisis in the lead up to the United Nations Climate Summit on 23rd September.

The planet is warming and mountains are hotspots of climate change activity, the effects of which have been witnessed by staff members and many of our readers.

As temperatures soar, Alpine mountains are crumbling as the permafrost – frozen rock, soil, sediments and varying amounts of ice – playing a major role in their structural integrity melts away, releasing trapped carbon into the atmosphere in the process. Landscapes are shifting and lives are lost. Rockfalls, avalanches and related accidents are becoming increasingly commonplace, while flora and fauna struggle to adapt to changing habitats.

In order to minimise risk, climbers and mountaineers are highly sensitive to mountain conditions. Most climbers know that snow and ice are ephemeral and that mountain landscapes are constantly changing, but we know an emergency when we see one. Keen observational skills not only keep us safe, but are now playing a key role in climate change research and education.

The loss or alteration of many classic climbing routes in the Alps – the Bonatti Pillar, the Cosmiques Arête and the various routes up Mont Blanc to name but a few - seem trivial in comparison to wider climate catastrophes such as extreme weather events, rising sea levels and associated humanitarian and socioeconomic issues, but they are key indicators of what is happening on a global scale.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of change in mountain landscapes in the European Alps and around the world is the rapid retreat of glaciers. In the early 20th Century, Swiss aviator and photographer Eduard Spelterini took a series of glass-plate photographs during a trans-alpine gas filled balloon crossing, which today serve as a serendipitous record of glacial retreat. Despite being drawn to the aesthetics of the glacier, Spelterini's main focus in taking these images was the geology of the mountains framing the serpentine Mer de Glace ('Sea of Ice') in the Mont Blanc Massif.

Spelterini couldn't have predicted how rapidly the landscape he surveyed would change over the next century. During the majority of the "little ice age" between 1300 - 1870, the glacier sprawled down to Chamonix Valley and was visible from the town until 1820. Its ablation – or retreat – along with its beauty was the source of much fascination, and in 1908 the Montenvers railway was built to transport tourists to the snout – or terminus - of the glacier.

An early 20th C. postcard of the Montenvers railway station directly overlooking a “sea of ice”.  © Public Domain image.
An early 20th C. postcard of the Montenvers railway station directly overlooking a “sea of ice”.
© Public Domain image.

At the area in the foreground of Spelterini's photographs, where the glacier now terminates, the surface has dropped around 100 metres from its position in 1909. Scientists have calculated that the overall volume of the Mer de Glace has diminished by the equivalent of around 700 million cubic metres of water in the last century. According to one study by a team at Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, if present climatic conditions are maintained the Mer de Glace will continue to shrink dramatically in the coming decades, retreating by 1200m between now and 2040 - and that's assuming the climate situation doesn't worsen in the meantime.

Mer de Glace comparison: 1909 and 2017.  © Eduard Spelterini / Dr Kieran Baxter
Mer de Glace comparison: 1909 and 2017.
© Eduard Spelterini / Dr Kieran Baxter

Upon disembarking from the Montenvers train, passengers would have been required to take just three steps to reach the glacier in 1908. Today, visitors must travel back through time down 480 steps. In the last thirty years, the Mer de Glace has lost three to five metres in depth per year, measured at its terminus. Placards mark the level of the glacier over the years gone by.

Further afield in Asia, the 'Third Pole' - as the Hindu Kush Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau have come to be known - a 2019 report by The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) assessing the Hindu Kush Himalaya region has revealed that at least one third (a predicted 36%) of the region's glaciers will disappear by 2100, regardless of any positive actions to minimise climate change and global warming through the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Such large warming could trigger a multitude of biophysical and socio-economic impacts, such as biodiversity loss, increased glacial melting, and less predictable water availability—all of which will impact livelihoods and well-being in the Hindu Kush Himalaya.

In Glacier National Park, Montana, the number of active glaciers has decreased from over 100 in 1910 to just 25 in 2015. Scientists estimate that all glaciers will have disappeared by 2030 if present climate conditions persist.

Closer to home, Britain's heather landscapes are under threat from climate change, with knock-on effects for fauna such as the red grouse and the emperor moth. These are but a few examples of the mountain environments suffering under our changing climate.

Aside from sharing our existing content on climate change topics, UKC and UKH will also endeavour to cover current issues surrounding climate change and its effects on mountain environments in more depth, as well as suggesting ways of minimising our impact as climbers, mountaineers and mountain tourists. There's no denying that we are each guilty of contributing to carbon dioxide output in our own way, but our aim is to spread awareness and encourage readers to make the changes that they can and engage in debate. Our upcoming destination guides will include links to a carbon footprint calculator and provide alternative methods of travel to flying by plane.

In the US, climbers and outdoor activists are meeting in Washington, D.C. this week to discuss issues surrounding climate change, energy development and land management with members of Congress as part of the fourth annual Climb the Hill lobbying session.

There are many more steps to take on the journey to slowing down climate change – not least those that will gradually lead us further and further down the terminal moraine of the Mer de Glace.

Follow the global coverage on social media using the hashtag #coveringclimatenow.

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20 Sep, 2019

Glad to see UKC stepping in to this. Thanks.

20 Sep, 2019

Interesting to note that we collectively are in a position perhaps more than any other such group - to witness without a doubt - climatic change, as evidenced by glacier retreat.

Well done UKC - 'the times - they are a changin' '

20 Sep, 2019

and of course to contribute to climate change, by travelling to the aforementioned retreating glaciers...

21 Sep, 2019

Travel which doesn't involve leaving the ground would be a good start.

21 Sep, 2019

So does that mean most bouldering is ok?

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