Climate change contributes to the fact that natural hazards occur more frequently in the alpine region. Peter Bebi conducts research at the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF in Davos these developments. In an interview, he explains what future dangers will look like in winter and how we, as mountain sports enthusiasts, can take care of the snow.

A guest contribution by Josua David Lay and Fabian Reichle - Bächli Bergsport

Peter, you work at the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF. What is your job there? 

At the SLF, I head the mountain ecosystem group. An important focus is on the protection forest in connection with natural hazards - for example avalanches. To this end, I carry out research projects, supervise students and write scientific research proposals and publications. However, I am also involved in many practical projects.

Alpine ecology is also affected by climate change. What effects does this have on avalanches and other natural hazards?

We expect increased heavy precipitation and other extreme events as a result of climate change. One can therefore assume that various natural hazards will become stronger and occur more frequently. In the case of avalanches, the duration of the snow cover decreases, in both low and high altitudes.

We expect increased heavy precipitation and other extreme events as a result of climate change.

So one can assume that there won't be more avalanches in general. However, in recent years we have observed the tendency that we have had more wet snow avalanches at higher altitudes.

Mighty wet snow avalanche in Göschenertal

But does less snow actually mean fewer avalanches?

You can't say that in general. Even if it tends to get warmer and warmer and the duration of the snow cover decreases, there can still be large amounts of snow. Wet snow avalanches in this case will have a lot of mass and destructive power.

Weak layers in the snow often occur when there is little snow.

Weak layers in the snow also often occur when there is little snow thickness. We must therefore not forget about avalanche protection in the future, even if the temperatures rise.

Can you give us a specific scenario for other natural hazards?

There will be growing cascade effects. Due to climate change, there will be more natural disturbances such as forest fires or bark beetle damage in the forest. This, in turn, can encourage the development of landslides.

The forest is also an avalanche protection. If you can no longer rely on it, will more artificial protective structures be built?

The forest will remain important and even gain relevance for protecting against natural hazards. Due to climate change, the tree line will rise, the avalanche protection forest will rather expand. Nevertheless, artificial avalanche protection structures will still be necessary, as avalanche starting areas are often well above the tree line. 

Are there increased or relocated dangers in mountain sports due to climate change? 

There are areas that are more prone to natural hazards. For example, steep permafrost areas are warming up or where the melting of glaciers can lead to glaciers breaking off and increasing the risk of flooding. In addition, there are occasional events such as the rockslide in Bondo, in which hikers were killed in an accident. Something like that has to be expected more and more.

There are more and more winters with little snow. What can winter mountaineers do to save their favorite season?

Those who love the mountains and winter sports should ultimately take care of the snow so that future generations can enjoy it as well. From a scientific point of view, it is completely undisputed that climate change is very much influenced by humans. There is no doubt about that.

From a scientific point of view, it is completely undisputed that climate change is very much influenced by humans.

And how do you take care of the snow?

If you want to go to the mountains, you don't have to go to the Andes, Himalayas or Rocky Mountains every year. It is better to explore the vicinity and combine this with sustainable tourism, the Alps offer a perfect space for this. But you can take care not only with the destination, but also with the equipment: By making sure that it has been produced under sustainable criteria. 

Are you also making brands and retailers - like Bächli Bergsport one - also responsible?

Yes, in any case. 

You research climate change and try to understand and clarify it. When it comes to consumption and behavior, people and companies can promote sustainability. Is there still a limit? Are we powerless at some point?

As mentioned earlier, humans have a major impact on climate change. That is why we can contribute a lot to it or at least slow it down - not prevent it, but we can cause the warming to proceed more slowly, so that we and the following generations will at least be less affected by negative influences.

Humans have a strong influence on climate change.

As long as we can, it is wrong to say that from a point X we cannot do anything more, that we are too late and that we would not assert ourselves. You can see what happened last year, how quickly humanity can adapt and deal with a danger. So there is a glimmer of hope that we will also face climate change.

If people are adaptable, how should they deal with the dwindling winter mentioned earlier?

In the future you will have to go higher to find snow safely. On the other hand, there will also be new opportunities in summer. Mountaineers need a certain flexibility; For example, when there is still no snow in October, one adapts to the situation and engages in mountain sports that suit the circumstances and is responsible, before artificial snow is required.

About Peter Bebi

Peter Bebi heads the Mountain Ecosystems group at the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research and is primarily concerned with protective forests and their effects on natural hazards. He grew up in Davos and now lives again with his family in Davos after studying and doing a doctorate at the ETH Zurich and a postdoc in Colorado (USA).

+ + +
Credits: Cover picture Whiterisk / SLF