As Swiss glaciers shrink, a way of life could disappear

As Swiss glaciers shrink, a way of life could disappear

For centuries, Swiss farmers have sent their cattle, goats and sheep to graze in the mountains during the warmer months, before bringing them back in early autumn. Conceived in the Middle Ages to preserve the valuable grass of the valleys for winter, the tradition of “summer” so transformed the landscape into a mosaic of forests and pastures that maintaining its appearance was enshrined in the Constitution Switzerland as an essential role for agriculture. .

He also woven essential threads of the country’s modern identity: Alpine cheeses, hiking trails that crisscross summer pastures, bells that resonate on the sides of the mountains.

In December, the United Nations heritage agency UNESCO added Swiss tradition to its exalted list of “intangible cultural heritage”.

But climate change threatens to upend these traditions. Warming temperatures, melting glaciers, less snow and earlier snowmelt are forcing farmers across Switzerland to adapt.

Not everyone feels the changes the same way in a country where the Alps create many microclimates. Some benefit from higher yields on summer pastures, which allows them to extend their alpine seasons. Others are forced by more frequent and intense droughts to move their herds down earlier.

The more obvious the effect on Switzerland, the more likely it is to create problems for the whole of Europe.

Switzerland has long been considered the water tower of Europe, the place where thick winter snows accumulated and gently melted during the warmer months, increasing runoff from the thick glaciers that helped fuel many European rivers and their way of life for centuries.

Since he began studying the Rhône Glacier in 2007, Daniel Farinotti, one of Europe’s leading glacier scientists, has seen it retreat by about half a kilometer, or about a third of its distance. a mile, and thin, forming a large glacial pond at its base.

He also saw the glacier – which stretches about nine kilometers, or about five and a half miles, in the Alps near Realp – turn black as the protective winter snow melts, revealing previous years of pollution in a loop of pernicious feedback.

“The darker the surface, the more sunlight it absorbs and the more melt it generates,” says Farinotti, who teaches at ETH Zurich and runs a summer course on the glacier.

To access the glacier from the road, his students walk through piles of white tarpaulins stretched around an ice cave dug for tourists. Tarps can reduce annual melting up to 60 percentbut they only cover a tiny fraction of glaciers, and in places like ski slopes, where there is a private financial incentive.

“You can’t cover an entire glacier with this,” said Farinotti, who also works for the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research.

The government is trying to cope with the changes and preserve Swiss alpine traditions, including with major infrastructure projects aimed at bringing water to the tops of the mountains for grazing animals during the summer months.

For now, traditions, although strained in places, endure. After three days of climbing rocky mountain sides and zigzagging down stone steps, the first sheep of a giant herd of nearly 700 animals appeared at the end of their “summer” last fall.

To the cheers of a crowd of spectators, some sheep pranced. Others stopped dead in their tracks and had to be cajoled by shepherds dressed in matching plaid shirts and leather cowboy hats, adorned with wildflowers and feathers.

The sheep had been living in the wild for more than three months, wandering a vast, high wilderness surrounded by glaciers. Their only contact with humanity had been the visit of a single shepherd, Fabrice Gex, who said he lost more than 30 kilos per season while traveling the territory to watch over them.

“I bring them salt, cookies and love,” Mr. Gex, 49, said.

To return them to their owners, who are mostly hobby farmers, he was joined by a team of breeders – known locally as “sanner” from Middle High German samnen, “to pick up” – who arrive by helicopter .

The work is rough and modestly paid, but locally it is considered an honor to participate in a tradition first recorded in 1830, but which many believe began centuries earlier.

“Being healthier gives you roots,” said Charly Jossen, 45, while enjoying a beer with many spectators after finishing his 11th season in the fall. “You know where you belong.” He had brought his son Michael, 10, for the first time.

Historically, the sanner took sheep across the tongue of the Oberaletsch glacier. But the retreat of the glacier has long made this route too unstable and dangerous. In 1972, the municipality of Naters dug a path into a steep rock face to provide shepherds and sheep with an alternative route home.

This season, the breeders intend to postpone their return by two weeks, indicated their leader, André Summermatter, 36 years old.

“With climate change, our growing season is longer,” he says, standing in the old stone enclosure where the sheep are herded at the end of their hike. “So the sheep can stay longer.” »

The tradition of alpine pasture, or “transhumance”, extends throughout the Alps, particularly in Austria, Italy and Germany.

Nearly half of Swiss farms send their goats, sheep and cows to summer pastures, according to the latest in-depth study carried out by government scientists in 2014.

More than 80 percent of Alpine agricultural income comes from government subsidies, most of which are aimed at keeping pastures free of invasive trees, which are rise with warmer temperatures.

This makes Switzerland one of the rare countries not to adopt forest cover as a solution to climate change.

“If we weren’t here, it would just be bushes and forests,” said Andrea Herger, leading the cows past a hikers’ hostel and into her family’s milking barn, halfway up a mountain. near Isenthal. “They wouldn’t be as open and beautiful landscapes for hiking.”

Her husband, Josef Herger, is the third generation of his family to run their alpine summer farm, which is accessed by a private cable car. They raise seven cows from their own farm and 33 cows from neighbors, who pay them with the cow’s milk the couple uses to make cheese.

Further west, near L’Etivaz, the Mottier family pushes 45 cows along what they call a “mountain train”, following newly sprouted grass to a 2,030 meter peak , or more than 6,600 feet, then descends to nibble the grass. second growth of grasses. Starting in May, they make five trips, stopping at three levels.

Near the summit, Benoît Mottier, 24, climbs a limestone spur, decorated with the initials of idle shepherds and the years they carved them. The oldest he could find was left in the 1700s by someone with his initials – BM

He is the fifth generation of his family to raise cows there.

The Mottiers are one of 70 families in the region who make a traditional Swiss cheese called L’Etivaz. They follow strict rules: slowly heat fresh milk in a giant copper cauldron over a spruce wood fire. Once the cheese is pressed, they take it to a local cooperative, where it is matured and sold.

Etivaz can only be made on the slopes of local mountains for six months out of the year. The tradition is so important that children from local farming families may leave school early during summer vacation to help.

“At the start of the season, we are happy to get started,” said Isabelle Mottier, Benoît’s mother. “At the end of the season, we’re happy it’s over.”

“For us, it’s a life of cycles,” she said.

The Mottier summer farm is supplied with water by a spring. The droughts of recent years have forced the family to adapt.

“A cow drinks 80 to 100 liters of water per day,” explains Ms. Mottier. “We have more than 40 cows. We need a huge amount of water.

In 2015, during a heatwave, spring dried up. Three years later, a new wave of heat and drought hit. And then again in 2022.

During droughts, the Swiss army transported water to the mountain pastures using helicopters. The Mottiers, however, did not have tanks to store it.

So they installed a solar-powered pump to draw water from a lower spring and purchased a large water bag to store early season snowmelt.

The situation is expected to get worse as glaciers retreat. The largest glaciers in the country, including that of Aletsch and Rhône, are projected decline by at least 68 percent by the end of the century.

In anticipation, the Swiss government has quadrupled funding for Alpine water projects. In 2022, it has approved 40.

Near the village of Jaun, a construction crew was laying pipes to carry electricity and water from a new cistern to six local farms. In 2022, some families moved down the mountain with their herds of cows a month early due to drought and heat.

In other regions, warmer temperatures make fields more productive, said Manuel Schneider, a scientist at Agroscope, the Swiss government’s national research institute, who is leading a five-year study of pasture biodiversity and yields. alpine.

This variability can occur even on a single mountain, however, he said. Farmers with mobile milking stations can take advantage of this “small-scale heterogeneity” by taking their cows – and their milking machines – to less dry areas.

“When the climate changes, you need flexibility,” Mr. Schneider said.

In the Italian Alps, near Sankt Ulrich, Thomas Comploi’s family won the climate change lottery.

Like many Alpine farmers, he uses part of his land to produce hay only; it is too steep for cattle to graze. Today, his fields produce twice as much grass as 15 years ago.

The provincial government of Bolzano-South Tyrol provides it with subsidies for avalanche prevention as well as land management, he said.

“All this would have disappeared without the farmers. — it would be covered in forest,” said Mr. Comploi, 48, who works at the local cable car company in winter.

He added: “We maintain the tradition – the passion and the way of life. »

In Swiss Alpine communities, the final descent at the end of summer is a celebration of this centuries-old way of life. Families replace their small cow bells with traditional giant bells to announce the event.

“When we put on the big bells, they know that they are going down,” explains Eliane Maurer, who runs after a young cow which moves away from the path with fine steps and descends in bends from the Engstligenalp.

His family is one of a dozen animals that take about 450 animals to pasture for the season. They stagger their descent in teams, so as not to cause bottlenecks.

Ms. Maurer and her family were the second to leave, before sunrise.

They walked under the full moon. The sound of cow bells echoing in the surrounding mountains was thunderous.

Paula Haase contributed reporting from Hamburg, Germany; Elise Boehm of Bologna, Italy; and Leah Süss from Zurich and Belalp.

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Eric D. Eilerman

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