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Rolling out the sunshade for Germany's highest mountain.Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

A Sunshade for Germany's Highest Peak

Rieke Brendel (ktz)
July 15, 2004

What started as an operation for saving ski areas has turned out to be a successful environmental measure to protect glaciers from melting away. Germany's Zugspitze now spends most of the year undercover.


While most people in Germany are complaining about the unseasonable temperatures this summer, the cool, wet weather has been a boon to Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze. After a fresh dusting of snow on Germany's most famous glacier this past week, environmentalists let out a sigh of relief.

But things aren't always this cool in the icy heights of the German Alps. Summers usually bring rising temperatures and glaring sunshine. Although the balmy weather may be just what the calendar calls for in the rest of the country, on the Zugspitze warm days are frowned upon.

With every rise in the mercury, precious centimeters of one of Germany's few remaining glaciers melt away. It's estimated that global warming results in a loss of about 10 centimeters of the glacier every year. At that rate, not much is expected to survive through the next century, says the Society for Environmental Research in Munich in its online Glacier Archive.

To preserve this unique environment, dedicated workers at the Zugspitzbahn, the cable car operator up to the peak, have devised a giant sun shade to protect the ice on top of the 2,962 meter-high mountain. Every year for the past 10 years, they spread out about 6,000 square meters (19,000 sq. feet) of mats and tarpaulins on the glacier's surface. The white material reflects sunlight and insulates against the heat, preventing further melting of the snow and ice.

Keeping the glacier under wraps

Abdecken auf der Zugspitze
Covering up the Zugspitze

The canvas also helps protect the glacier from warm summer rain, "which virtually devours the snow," says Stephanie Vogel of the Zugspitzbahn.

Vogel and her colleagues at the peak's cable car are in favor of the giant sunshade. Although she admits it is work to cover the glacier, it is import for preserving the fragile condition on the mountain top for posterity.

Originally the idea was developed to protect snow in popular ski areas, but Vogel says it has moved beyond the economic aspects related to tourism and has turned out to be a successful environmental measure.

To critics she acknowledges the sun shield is an "intervention in nature." Any attempt to save an at-risk environment implies intervention, she argues. The tarps, she believes, are the least dramatic interference.

In other places, snow guns are used to keep mountain peaks and especially ski resorts covered in white powder. Germany, however, is against relying on artificial snow because of the environmental concerns and the cost of energy involved.

Consequences of glacial melting

At 2,963 meters, the Zugspitze in Bavaria is Germany's highest mountain.Image: dpa
The Zugspitze is not alone in its battle against global warming. Environmentalists say glaciers are some of the most threatened ecosystems on earth. They function as "global thermometers" and are extremely sensitive to the world's rising temperature.

Global warming, the lack of snow in winter, hot summers as well as air pollution and acid rain are responsible for shrinking glaciers, says the Society for Environmental Research in Munich. More than just the loss of a valuable landscape, the defrosting of the permanent glacial ice -- the permafrost --causes landslides and avalanches as the rocky undersurface is revealed and erodes in the rough wind. Resources of potable water provided by glacial ice also become more scarce, the society warns on its Web site.

Given current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, the anti-glare shield on the Zugspitze may in the end only represent a last-ditch effort to slow down the almost inevitable glacier diminution. "As contemporary witnesses of this rapid melting we are at least able to experience real glaciers. It is possible our descendants won't see this phenomenon," fears the Society for Environmental Research.

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