Monday, 9 April 2012

Matterhorn scientist disintegrating in the face of global warming - the true story?

Four days ago, I expressed my astonishment (I was more than just surprised) that a scientist could think that he and his team had done groundbreaking (it's a pun) research on how thawing/freezing processes were cracking rock and creating rockfalls on Switzerland's iconic Matterhorn. Those processes are well understood, and have been for at least a hundred years, Yesterday, while searching for more Matterhorn images for my collection, I came across a real gem on ABC News - Is the Mighty Matterhorn Mountain Crumbling?
To understand how climate change is helping destabilize one of the world’s most famous mountains, Stephan Gruber of the University of Zurich offers a culinary visualization.
Imagine a piece of bread – or perhaps even better, a thick cut of raw steak – in an oven. Put a stick of frozen butter on top of it. And then turn the oven on.
Apart from the fact that I can't imagine anyone in their right mind putting a slice of steak, let alone bread in an oven with frozen butter on it, I'll go along with the analogy for now. I'm like that, broad-minded and receptive. Read on (my bold)
Two things happen:
The outside of the steak begins to cook relatively quickly. The inside stays raw for longer.
At the same time, the butter begins to melt – and seep into the steak.
Now, imagine that the steak is the mighty Matterhorn mountain, one of the most picturesque in Europe (and, yes, some of you may know it better as Disneyland’s original rollercoaster).
Climate change works in three ways:
As the world gets warmer – as the oven heats up – the outside of the Matterhorn heats up (the outside of the steak cooks). That, by itself, slowly breaks apart the ice that holds the mountain’s exterior rock surface together. So we are beginning to see more rock falls than ever before. (In 2003, a massive rock fall stranded 50 climbers.)
Does heat "break apart ice"? No, it melts it, and climate change can work in another way which doesn't even enter the closed minds of some - the world might get colder. At this point we should remind ourselves what the heated-up "outside" of the Matterhorn looks like in summer, when Herr Gruber's limited view of "climate change" is heating it up. This photo is from 2007.

The Matterhorn - East face. Source: Free Wallpaper Pic
It's clearly summer, which can be deduced from the high Sun angle. What's all the white stuff clinging to the "heated up" rock faces? Is it frozen butter? I'm keen to hear more:
Then, the butter starts melting. The butter is actually that same ice that holds much of the mountain together. As it melts, it seeps down into ice that doesn’t see the sun – say, the center of the steak – and helps cook it from the inside.
Thirdly, slowly but surely, the oven heat finally reaches the middle of the steak. Climate change finally helps warm the inside of the mountain.
And slowly but surely, the integrity of the mountain starts to diminish, both from the outside and from the inside-out.
In my total ignorance I thought it was rock that "holds much of the mountain together", but what do I and geologists know? There's more:
Before you think that this is some obscure thing that happens in places with very, very high elevations, consider this: The mountains where this is happening are located where millions of people – many in Asia – actually live.
Gruber recently released a study of how this happens – the first to show that typical patters[sic] of movement of ice exist on mountains like the Matterhorn.
That last sentence is a real killer - "the first to show that typical patterns of movement of ice exist on mountains like the Matterhorn". If they're "typical patterns" then they're already well known to exist, and they're well documented, so his study cannot be the "first". It's not "climate change" which melts ice in crevices on high mountains, it's the Sun, and it's the re-freezing at night in the summer, and in the winter which widens the cracks. Ice has a larger volume that the water which forms it. The writer himself needs a geography lesson - exactly how many of the "millions of people" are threatened in some way by rock falls at altitude?

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