Climate change in the Alps: do we need warning systems for summer?

Protection for critical infrastructure

Researchers are working on more complex warning systems to identify road, city or railway hazards at an early stage. Adrian Ringenbach is involved in the development of software that creates just such alerts for planning agencies. In his experiments he lets huge boulders roll down mountains. In this way, Ringenbach obtains important data about the path taken by a possible stone fall: “It makes a big difference whether you have an alpine meadow or a scree slope, or what shape a stone has. Almost round stones roll relatively straight down a mountain , while stones, which look like a wheel that can roll much further sideways.”

These fall routes then go as data points into simulation software, which is already being used to decide whether a road should have a safety fence or whether a tunnel should even be drilled. The knowledge gained could later also be used for warnings in the leisure sector.

Regional data – Regional decisions

Franz Rasp is mayor of Berchtesgaden. A debris flow destroyed the historic ice rink here in July 2021. Houses had to be closed, a woman died. In addition to local warning systems, it brings into play common standards to better compare potential hazards and allocate scarce resources wisely. “It would be exciting to have a system at the national level where funds are distributed, for example to compare the Berchtesgadener Land with the Allgäu.”

In response to the natural disaster, protective measures were taken in Berchtesgaden: a new fence against stone chips was built and newly built bridges were supposed to be more resistant to flooding. According to Rasp, however, there can be no question of absolute safety. People need to be made aware of this fact.

Potential in accumulated experience

This is also emphasized by Jan Beutel, who conducts research at the University of Innsbruck. He has placed sensors on the Matterhorn in Switzerland or on the Hochvogel on the German-Austrian border. This records the movement of falling boulders so that trails, huts and villages can be cleared in time. Bag is skeptical about a comprehensive warning system, but sees advantages in bundling local information: “There are many people, professionals and non-professionals, who have experiences, also exchange ideas in the huts, but what they see the road, the changes, the rockfalls, very little is collected.”

The researchers agree that this current data would be the most important source for assessing conditions on a tour on a daily basis. Whether a tour is possible can change within a few days. According to researcher Bründl, it is also important to keep your eyes and ears open. If there are already stones at the end of the glacier, this is usually not the best place for a picnic.

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