The Slaying of Giants



Far from being symbols of colossal invincibility, the world's mightiest mountains are among the first casualties of climate change as Simon Birch reports.  

Norbu Sherpa doesn't need to be lectured about any future impact of climate change: 20 years ago, Norbu, who lives in the Khumbu region of the Himalayas, nearly lost his life when a glacier lake above his village burst its walls, an event which has been directly attributed to climate change.
"My family and I were all in our house when we heard a big explosion and rushed out to see what had happened," says Norbu
"To our astonishment we saw a big black river of mud, including rocks and trees rushing down the mountain. We got out just in time as the flood swept away our house as well as our cattle and crops."
"We were the lucky ones as at least 20 people drowned that afternoon," adds Norbu.  What Norbu and his family witnessed was a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood.
"These floods occur when shrinking glaciers and melting ice cause lakes to grow which eventually break through their loose glacial moraine walls sending huge floods of water, mud and boulders downstream with devastating results," explains Chandra Prasad Gurung who works for the environmental group WWF in Nepal 
"There are 3,250 glaciers in the Nepalese Himalayas and 2,315 of these contain glacial lakes that are increasing in size at various rates," says Chandra. 
Two years ago it was discovered that 20 lakes in Nepal and Bhutan were filling up so rapidly that their walls could breach by 2009.  

Further evidence of the impact of the rapidly warming Himalaya came this spring with a Greenpeace study showing that spectacular ice formations near Mt Everest's base camp called the Serak Forest had all but disappeared. 
"The demise of the Serak Forest is one the most significant signs of global warming in the Himalayas," says Li Yan from Greenpeace. 
There's now increasing concern that the continued melting of the Himalayan glaciers will have serious implications for millions of people.  "The Himalayan glaciers are the source of the biggest rivers in Asia including the Ganges and Yangtze which provide water for more than a quarter of the world's population," adds Li.  

Mountainous regions are now proving to be particularly sensitive to climate change. 
In the European Alps for example recent warming is thought to be roughly three times the global average, the implications of which are being felt by the European ski industry. 
"Rising temperatures are reducing the reliability of snowfall with the result that within 50 years all ski resorts below 1,200m won't have a chance and will go out of business," says Michel Revaz of CIPRA, the Liechtenstein-based Alpine conservation group. 
This warning is setting off alarm bells right across Europe's lower-altitude ski resorts, no more so than in Austria where 75 per cent of the ski lifts are built below 1,000m. 
"The French ski industry is very worried about the future as we are having less snow than we used to," admits Jean- Louis Tuallion who overseas the pistes at Tignes, a firm favourite of the thousands of British boarders and skiers who flock to the Alps every year. 
The impact of climate change in the Alps isn't just being felt during the winter months either. 
Throughout the summer visitors can now witness the Alps literally fall apart as the ice which binds the Alpine peaks together melts, loosening rocks and sending whole mountainsides crashing to the ground. 
Just last year it was standing room only as tourists flocked to Switzerland to watch a slab of rock the size of two Empire State Buildings break off from the side of the Eiger and collapse into the valley below.   
And two years ago 70 stranded climbers had to be plucked to safety by helicopters from the Matterhorn after a series of rockfalls swept down its vertical walls.
Whilst mountains such as the Alps attract millions of tourists ever year, this hasn't always been the case.
 Up until the early 1830's, mountains were widely regarded as being inhospitable, forbidding and downright dangerous and best avoided.
All this was to change forever thanks to the likes of poets such as Coleridge and Wordsworth and artists such as Turner who were leading exponents of the Romantic Movement which revolutionised British art and culture.
"Through their work Coleridge and Turner changed the way that people responded to nature and viewed the mountains," says Paul Evans, the Sheffield-based artist and climber.
"When Turner painted Llanberis Pass and or an avalanche in the Alps, he interpreted the mountain landscape as something that was not only much bigger than ourselves but as a place that might help us come to terms with the more extreme elements of God's creation."
Artists such as Evans recognise that mountain environments are special places.
 "When you find yourself surrounded by awesome mountains, whether you believe in the idea of having a soul or not, it does provoke a pretty mysterious and powerful response," says Evans.
"This is something that artists have always been aware of and responded to in their work."
Back in Nepal Norbu Sherpa who now works as a mountain guide is clearly anxious about the impact that climate change is having on his home:
"It makes me sad to realise that the natural beauty of the Himalaya that people come from all over the world to see is now at risk. The majestic Himalayas and glaciers that have stood for thousands of years are now melting away," says Norbu.
"I would like to request that everyone around the world takes climate change seriously and acts quickly to reduce its impact. "

Simon Birch is a freelance environmental journalist and a regular contributor to  BBC Wildlife Magazine, the Guardian and the Independent.