Monday, August 07, 2006

Eiger Poised to Fall, but is it Global Warming?

Having just returned from a trip to Switzerland, I am concerned for the state of the Eiger mountain. On taking the busy path from Kleine Scheidegg to Mannlichen, the mighty north face ("nordwand" in German) of the Eiger stares back at you flat-on, an enduring reminder of the 50 deaths that have occurred among those climbers with the temerity to attempt an ascension of it, hence the nickname "mortwand" (from the German meaning "death face"). The Eiger ("Ogre") is the edge-stone of that trilogy of mountains, including the Jungfrau ("Young Woman", usually translated as "Virgin"... well, it was named a long time ago) and the Monch ("Monk"). Set centre between the Jungfrau and the Monch is the "Sphinx" (High Alpine Research Station that monitors the composition of the atmosphere), on the "Jungfraujoch", and as implied by the name "Jungfrau yoke", it lies on a "flat" stretch of glacial rock between the Jungfrau and Monch peaks as though set laden upon the shoulders of a burden bearing animal. Switzerland, it must be realised, is traditionally an agricultural nation, and hence this would be a ready metaphor to farmers long past. Around a century ago, Switzerland made some wise investments as it turned out, and hence has long since unshackled itself from dependence on agriculture, while remaining traditional and indeed rural in many respects of Swiss society.
It is, however, the east face of the Eiger that has attracted the major recent attention, since there has been a significant rock-fall from it. Large fissures were spotted in mid-June on the eastern side of the mountain, and so far around 700,000 cubic metres of rock - around one third of the original 2 million cubic metres (about four and a half million tonnes) - has fallen, with the remainder set to par away and collapse into the valley overlooking Grindelwald. Geologists have installed an infrared laser system to measure the size of the disintegrating slab of rock and hence the rate of its imminent collapse. It is not certain that the final demise of the slab will be spectacular, and it may well rivulet away in the form of many relatively small rock slides, rather than in one concerted avalanche. The question remains of what is causing this effect, and begs another of what if anything can be done about it? It appears that there are no houses in the way, and the fall so far has been contained in the valley, thus Gridelwald is in no immediate danger. No one has been hurt so far, neither resident nor climber.
"One hundred and fifty years ago, the Eiger glacier ("Eigergletscher") reached completely up to the highest part of the mountain where the rock is now breaking away," thus spoke ETH geologist Hans Rudolph Keusen. "Now it's 200 metres lower so it's no longer supporting the cliff and without it, the rock has loosened and cracked, allowing water to seep in, creating a lot of pressure. We are going to have a lot of situations like this in future," he added, pointing a stark finger at rising temperatures caused by global warming. I would normally have been skeptical over this apportion of blame, since global warming seems to cop for everything - too cold or too hot - it's always down to global warming. However, anyone with eyes and reasonable experience of the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland can see that there is significantly less glacial ice than formerly covered its mountain peaks, hence "The Sphinx" too, is more clearly visible than I have ever known it and I would now take Keusen's warning seriously. The outcome remains to unfold, and there is almost nothing we can do to allay the effects of any existing global temperature changes, although the future impact may rest partly on what we do now, and burning less fossil fuel might be the thing.
The two heads of the energy issue turn about - CO2 emissions and "Peak oil". Either emphasis points to the same course of action, and that is to reduce our oil dependence and use dramatically and in short order. This takes me onto another aspect, namely the question of what might life be like post - "Peak Oil"? Here again, Switzerland offers an insiders' eye. At Ballenberg is the Freileichtmuseum - an open air representation of traditional Swiss rural life, farming methods, water-mill powered bone-crushing and plank-sawing apparatus, and traditional animals such as the "woolly grazing pig" - a hardy creature that we were pleased to see had survived the terrible flooding of last year, and its attendant land-slides, and that indeed she had since given birth to a litter of healthy "woolly" piglets. It is a "museum", a simulation of events and as such is not self-sufficient as the Swiss ancestors would have been, largely through implementing such living methods as it portrays. However, the thought came to our minds that this may well be what life will become again, and not just for Switzerland but for all of us.
The thought does not comfort me personally, and I am not an advocate of going back to the "stone age". However, I am reminded that small communities in the future might well be growing their own timber, their own food, working metal "plowshares" with charcoal "burned" in local pits, and purifying water with "lime" that again had been burned locally. I live in the village of Caversham (which lies on the north bank of the River Thames from Reading), and we are on the edge of the Chiltern Hills which are made of chalk - a form of calcium carbonate that when intensely heated loses CO2 to leave the lime as a solid material. As our ancestors did, this could be once again cut to make lime for making bricks and for sanitation. To be sure these are all CO2 emitting processes, but nothing like the emissions from Hummers and their British variants which gridlock the roads ridiculously and thoroughly clog the mere two bridges that connect Caversham with Reading to the south and the transport lanes into that mighty capital, London. Mostly, however, the SUV's (4 x 4's) are just used for taking the kids to school - locally!

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