…, leaving lasting traces, …

Glaciers define their landscapes and give them a distinctive, unmistakeable character such as we find here in the Bernina region. Glacier landscapes are rich in different patterns and shapes, so there is always something new to observe and discover.

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Debris flow deposits   Rockfall 2003

Natural hazards and preventive measures

Thawing permafrost

Permafrost is also warming under the influence of climate change, but below ground, protected from the direct sunlight, this is happening more slowly than with the glaciers. However, if water penetrates the ground, this process can be accelerated. A pile of rubble that is frozen all year round is relatively stable, because the ice holds the rocks together. But if that ice melts, the pile loses some of its stability. A violent summer storm or a long period of heavy rain can then cause a mudslide.

Rock faces can also contain ice in their crevices if they are in a region of permafrost. If that ice melts, the meltwater flows further into the crevice and to the interior of the rock face, where it freezes again. Repeated thawing and freezing can enlarge the crevices and weaken the rock face. This can result in rockfall events (up to 100 m3 in volume), rockslides (100 to several 100,000 m3) or even landslides (over one million m3).

Preventive measures on the Schafberg

On the Schafberg near Pontresina, there is an icy patch of permafrost ground in the loose scree above Val Giandains where the temperature is only just below zero. As a result of global warming, this region is melting more and more. As the mass of rubble started to thaw, in a potential avalanche starting zone where no protective infrastructure had yet been built, it brought a new risk of mudslides. The local authorities in Pontresina therefore decided to build protective embankments immediately above the village. These structures protect it not only from mudslides but in winter also from avalanches.

Implications for tourism

Winter tourism is directly dependent on the climate, because it relies on there being sufficient snow. However, summer tourism also depends on the climate, because it is based on visitors enjoying beautiful, attractive and varied high-alpine scenery. That includes the glaciers. Many glaciers, such as the Biancograt, have become symbols for their region. The retreat of the glaciers will initially have a negative effect on how attractive the landscape of the Upper Engadin is for tourists. We have to ask ourselves: will the visitors still come in summer if the Bernina range is no longer white but grey?

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