The Slippery Slope Of Global Warming, From A Melting Mont-Blanc Glacier

Looking over at the Mer de Glace
Looking over at the Mer de Glace
Alessandro Mano

COURMAYEUR — When the alarm sounded last year, it was because the ice on the Mont Blanc, on the border between Italy and France, was moving too quickly.

Its front had broken away from the rest of the ice lobe, separated by a huge crack, and descended three meters per day. Experts feared that 250 thousand cubic meters of ice might fall on the valley, an enormous quantity that could shatter on the rocks below, causing an avalanche and arriving on homes in the Ferret Valley, near Courmayeur.

The good news is that this year, the glacier is not travelling as fast, and last year's 250,000 cubic meters of ice are a distant memory: the heat has melted most of them. Some 176,000 collapsed in smaller blocks of ice that crumbled on the underlying rocks and flowed into the river, the Dora di Ferret.

But there's also bad news: A 40-meter crevasse has formed a new serac, a block of ice at risk of toppling, that is double the size of last year's: half a million cubic meters — larger than the Milan Duomo.

The warming climate added to the problem. After weeks of sizzling heat, with the air reaching zero degrees only at 5,000 meters above sea level, temperatures nosedived on Tuesday, Aug. 4, and it snowed abundantly on the glacier.

A soccer pitch with a 30-story building erected on top of it ...

"The Planpincieux is a temperate glacier because it sits at altitudes where temperatures contribute to melting it," says Valerio Segor, a director of mountain hydrogeology within the regional authority Valle D'Aosta, which comprises Courmayeur and the Planpincieux glacier. "And the water that flows between the glacier and the rock beneath it acts as a lubricant, facilitating the glacier's downward slide."

This lubricant froze, slowing the movement down to a meter a day. But that's not, in fact, a good thing. And that's because the glacier's halt and new scorching temperatures could lead to a sudden collapse.

"Picture a soccer pitch with a 30-story building erected on top of it: That's the amount of ice that could fall down," says Segor.

Climbers near a glacier crevasse on Punta Helbronner, on the southern side of the Mont Blanc massif — Photo: Grzegorz Galazka/Mondadori Portfolio/ZUMA

Watching and waiting

Experts at the Swiss Federal Institute for the study of Snow and Avalanches in Davos are worried, and quickly contacted their colleagues at the Safe Mountain Foundation in Courmayeur and the National Research Council in Turin.

Fabrizio Troilo, head geologist and a glaciologist at the Safe Mountain Foundation, says the water is the main danger because it could act as a sort of spring.

"The most catastrophic glacial collapses in history have probably been caused by the instability of the water flowing beneath the glacier. It happens when temperatures drop abruptly and quickly rise again," he says.

Outside, children played in summer camps, unaware of the emergency.

In case of collapse, experts have identified two areas at risk. One could face a huge avalanche; the other the ensuing aerosol. The first danger area in the Ferret Valley includes the residents of Montitaz and part of the town of Planpincieux, whose houses could be buried or swept away by the snow. The second area includes most of Planpincieux and Meyen.

Authorities have evacuated some 75 tourists and residents. A sports center in nearby Dolonne has been set up as a reception center for the displaced. "We haven't seen anyone yet," local Red Cross volunteers said Thursday afternoon. Outside, children played in summer camps, unaware of the emergency.

Residents don't seem particularly phased. Many of the evacuated also have a house in Courmayeur or have relatives to stay with. Tourists have gone home or are staying in hotels in Planpincieux outside the danger zone.

"The evacuation concerns only a part of Planpincieux and the Ferret Valley," said Courmayeur Mayor Stefano Miserocchi, who has the difficult task of mediating between protecting civilians and the local economy at the peak of the tourist season.

"The rest of the town goes on normally, and it's full of tourists," he said.

The Ferret Valley committee, which was convened after last year's emergency, has asked to refrain from using "excessive caution" and highlights that closing the valley "will bring immediate and long-term economic and reputational damage.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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