Rock unsolid

In 2006, the Eiger in the Bernese Alps experienced a large rock fall thought to be caused by global warming In 2006, the Eiger in the Bernese Alps experienced a large rock fall thought to be caused by global warming L & M Photography
20 Jan
Falling rocks and unstable cliff faces are always a hazard for mountain climbers, however, could climate change be adding to the danger?

‘Climbers are more at risk from rockfall today than they were 150 years ago,’ says Arnaud Temme, Professor in Geomorphology at Wageningen University and author of the study. The conclusion was reached following analysis of 150 years worth of Bernese Alps climbing guidebooks, putting the increase down to the warming temperatures being seen across the Alpine region. ‘I looked at hazard warnings over various climbing routes, with a view to finding out differences over time,’ he says.

Weather can take its toll on rocks. During winter months, water freezes in cracks expanding them. In the summer, the ice melts leaving behind a more unstable rock face. This is a natural weathering process that helps shape mountainsides.

‘However, warmer temperatures increase the risk of this weathering process,’ says Temme. ‘They cause permafrost degradation, which means that more locations that used to be locked in permafrost are now alternating between frozen and melted.’ Fewer rockfall warnings from the old guides indicated to Temme that permafrost used to keep the rock face more stable.

shutterstock 66895111Despite the dangers posed by the warming climate, climbing has become less dangerous overall (Image: Mikadun)

‘As another hazard, warmer temperatures lead to melting of permanent snowfields, which exposes rock faces and rock slopes that have not been at the surface for a long time - sometimes thousands of years. The rocks contained in the snow are often lying precariously on those faces and slopes.’

While rockfall danger has increased, Temme says the sport is still less dangerous than it was 150 years ago: ‘Climbers have already countered some of the dangers by declaring routes unclimbable, and changing the ascent of some others.’ Meanwhile, drastic improvements in equipment, weather forecasting and search and rescue teams help to keep climbers as safe as possible.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Leave a comment

ONLY registered members can leave comments and each comment is held pending authorisation before publishing. Please login or register to voice your opinion.

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today


Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    Long live the King
    It is barely half a century since the Born Free story caused the world to re-evaluate humanity’s relationship with lions. A few brief decades later,...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital have a green future,...


NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...


The next stage in autonomous vehicles is hoping to transform…


Geographical’s resident data cartographer presents a true picture of the…


What impact could an unprecedented incident of ‘river piracy’ have…


Norway is to undercut a mountainous peninsula to create the…


Benjmain Hennig explores global mortality with maps


Last winter’s cold conditions contributed a further influx of road…


As one of America’s biggest cities, supplying clean drinking water…


Cape Town’s Foreshore Freeway Bridge has been left unfinished for…


An interactive map highlights the shocking number of ongoing conflicts…


Repurposed NASA maps show the racial diversity (and segregation) of…


Benjamin Hennig maps Europe's public train networks


A new map of global landslide susceptibility reveals vast geographical…


For decades, scientists have been divided over how these eerily…


The first count of global tree species reveals how many…


The new ‘world’s longest flight’ now spans a distance of more…


For the Swiss, the iconic yellow postbuses are much more…


After years of inaction, could the clean-up of the Venice lagoon…


Following the recent success of New Zealand’s Whanganui river, India’s…


The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation)…


Where are Europe's earthquakes located? Benjamin Hennig maps the answer