Zugspitze is the tallest peak in Germany -- munichFOTO
Zugspitze is the tallest peak in Germany -- munichFOTO

MUNICH — (MunichNOW Science) — The Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak, is only a two-hour train ride away from Munich. It makes for a great day trip from the city, but have you ever wondered about the geography and geology of the mighty Bavarian Alps? In this three-part series, you can discover more.

Part 1: The roof of Germany: how the Alps came to be

One of the first day trips I made when I first arrived in Germany was to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, at the foothills of the Alps. I’d discovered it offered some good hiking and that the town itself was lovely, too. It turns out it is also home to Germany’s highest peak, the Zugspitze, a 2962-meter towering mass of rock, ice and snow.

Looking out over the Austrian alps with the Swiss alps in the distance -- munichFOTO
Looking out over the Austrian alps with the Swiss alps in the distance — munichFOTO

Climbing to the summit is beyond my capabilities – but I found the less challenging alternative to reaching the summit is not for the fainthearted either! It starts with a pleasant (but slow) train journey to Lake Eibsee. You then transfer to a cable car, which transports you to 1000 meters above sea level, right up to the summit of the Zugspitze in a hair-raising 10 minute (near-vertical) ascent! Like I said, not for the fainthearted! You can make the whole journey on a cog-wheel train (Zugspitzbahn), if you don’t fancy the rather scary cable car.

The cog railway takes you nearly to the top of the Zugspitze -- munichFOTO
The cog railway takes you nearly to the top of the Zugspitze — munichFOTO

The views from the summit are absolutely worth the nerve-wracking journey. The border between Germany and Austria runs along the western part of the summit and on a good day you get 360° views across four countries: the peaks of Switzerland and Italy are visible to the west and south.

These mountains are all part of the Wetterstein massif, a range of peaks made of limestone (a rock made of the skeletons of marine organisms), formed from sediments deposited at the bottom of the Tethys Ocean 200 million years ago. The Tethys Ocean disappeared as a result of the closure of the gap between the ancient supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwana some 30 million years ago.

The peak of the Zugspitze looking from the SonnAlpin level, where the train terminates -- munichFOTO
The peak of the Zugspitze looking from the SonnAlpin level, where the train terminates — munichFOTO

As a result of this convergence of the continents, the sea floor of the Tethys lifted upwards and formed the Alps. The intense tectonic forces created recumbent folds in the limestone, called nappes. The present-day ridges and valleys have been carved out of the limestone by glaciers over the last 2 million years.

Part II: A shrinking glacier

One of the glaciers, the Schneeferner, is easily accessible from the visitor centre at the summit of the Zugspitze. Having never set foot on a glacier before, it was a must for my day trip. It is home to numerous ski slopes, although none were yet in operation when I visited in October.

The decline of the glacier is clearly visible in this photo -- wikiCommons
The decline of the glacier is clearly visible in this photo — wikiCommons

Like many Alpine glaciers, Schneeferner is getting smaller – or retreating, as scientists call it. Global warming means there is less winter precipitation, meaning less and less snow is added to glaciers during the cold season. Add to that hotter summers, which cause greater rates of melting, and glaciers across Europe’s highest mountains are shrinking at unprecedented rates.

 

Panels explaining the geography are posted at various points .. photo: Laura Roberts
Panels explaining the geography are posted at various points On the left the glacier is much larger than in the photo on the right .. photo: Laura Roberts

Educational panels, housed in little huts dotted about the icy landscape, illustrate the problem.   On the right, a photograph of the extent of the glacier in 1890; centre image taken in 1961 and left image shows the glacier in 2006.

 

Schneeferner glacier was once part of a much larger glacier which covered the entire Zugspitzplatt until 1820, when retreating of the ice meant it split into the northern and the southern Schneeferner. The southern glacier has all but disappeared due to being more exposed to the sun and receiving little input of snow from avalanches.

The glacier I stood on is also shrinking at an alarming rate, although here it is its thickness that changes, rather than its extent. A survey in 2011 revealed it has a maximum depth of 50 meters.

Looking down from the peak toward the foot of what is left of the glacier. The whole area is dusted with recent snow -- munichFOTO
Looking down from the peak toward the foot of what is left of the glacier. The whole area is dusted with recent snow — munichFOTO

The skiing industry in the area means that there is investment in trying to extend the life expectancy of the glacier, despite the effects of a warming climate. Tarpaulins are spread over the upper reaches of the glacier in the summer to protect it from intense sunlight and avalanches are programmed regularly to feed more snow onto its surface.

The ski industry is also doing their bit by compacting real and artificial snow to create the perfect conditions for skiers and so contributing to increasing the depth of snow cover.

Part III: A ski industry at risk

Skiers and hikers enjoy lunch and some sun on the alpine terrace -- munichFOTO
Skiers and hikers enjoy lunch and some sun on the alpine terrace — munichFOTO

But even local ski enthusiasts might see their favourite winter hobby decline in the coming years as a result of a changing climate. A recent study found that, unless we manage to keep global warming below 2°C, the Alps could lose up to 70% of their snow cover by the end of the century.

In addition, scientists say that the period of time when snow on the Alps will be thick enough to ski on will also be shortened by climbing global temperatures. As temperatures rise, the ski season could start half a month to a month later than it does at present.

The t-bar used to operate year-round -- munichFOTO
The t-bar used to operate year-round — munichFOTO

Not only that, at current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, enough snow for winter sports can only be guaranteed above 2500 meters by the end of the century, meaning many German resorts would be unable to sustain a ski season at all.

“Since many Alpine villages are heavily dependent on winter tourism, the economy and society of regions with such tourism centres will suffer,” says Sebastian Schlögl, a scientist at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) and co-author of the research.

Replica of an ice core extracted from Schneeferner glacier. (Credit: Laura Roberts)
Replica of an ice core extracted from Schneeferner glacier. (Credit: Laura Roberts)

Of course, I wonder how effective this display actually is; does it achieve its purpose at all? I found myself thinking, was I simply attracted to it because of my geological background and love of all things science communication? I’d be very interested to know if you have come across similar projects/displays elsewhere on the ski slopes and if you found them at all engaging, thought-provoking or interesting?

During the summers months, the actual peak is open for the more daring day hikers -- munichFOTO
During the summers months, the actual peak is open for the more daring day hikers — munichFOTO
Looking due south with the Italian alps off in the distance -- munichFOTO
Looking due south with the Italian alps off in the distance — munichFOTO