“Alps Face Disaster as Permafrost Melts”

Permafrost that holds Europe’s highest mountain ranges together is slowly melting, threatening widespread devastation within the next few decades. Foundations of cable car stations face collapse; mountain slopes, held together by frozen soil are likely to be swept down valleys; and rock faces will disintegrate.
Already, several recent Alpine disasters, including the avalanches that killed more than 50 people at the Austrian resort of Galtur in 1999, are being blamed on the melting of permafrost.

TerraDat is part of a team of scientists who have been monitoring the melting of permafrost in Europe’s alpine regions for the E.U. and Swiss Government in a research project called PACE, Permafrost and Climate in Europe. The experience and innovations developed in this project are available commercially through TERRADAT and its associates.

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Devastation caused by debri
Flowat Wallis, Switzerland

Based on calculations made from 100 metre-deep boreholes near Mürren and Zermatt in Switzerland, it has been calculated that the temperatures in rock and mud has increased by 1 to 2 deg. C over the past century.

Given that temperatures in the permafrost layer is only -2 or -3 deg. C, it will not take much warming to cause a melt. The combination of ground temperatures only slightly below zero, high ice contents and steep slopes, makes mountain permafrost particularly vulnerable to changes.

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Geo-electical imaging to map permafrost degradation. St. Morritz, Switzerland

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GPR profiling in the Alps to map permafrost interface
The likely consequences of degrading permafrost would be an increase of slope failures, mudslides and rock falls. There are some frozen rock slopes that are so unstable they can fail even before a thaw.

The effects are likely to be most disastrous in the Alps where steep slopes mean villages, roads and railways are built directly below altitude permafrost zones, however this can be a global problem – especially where manmade activities such as pipelines or building services artificially degrade permafrost.

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Schilthorn Summit (3000m) – small glacier has disappeared in the last 5 years and TERRADAT has found evidence of permafrost degradation

Services we offer:

  • Full historical desk study and risk analyis of mountain areas
  • Integrated Geophysics Surveys (e.g. seismics, geo-electrical, GPR, BTS etc.)
  • Monitoring installations (boreholes, weather stations, slope movement detectors)
  • Engineering geology recommendations

Further Reading:

TerraDat Case Study 1: Geo-electrical imaging to map permafrost degradation

TerraDat Case Study 2: Integrated study of a field area in Sierra Nevada, Spain

International Permafrost Association

Contact Us

Unit 1, Link Trade Park
Cardiff CF11 8TQ
United Kingdom

Phone: +44 (0)8707 303050
Email: web@terradat.co.uk

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