A Swiss village is building defences against the threat of global warming, after a study showed that the community could be swept away by melting permafrost, which makes up some six per cent of Switzerland's surface area.
Pontresina in southeast Switzerland is Europe's first mountain resort to take action against the threat posed by climate change. It is spending SFr7 million to build a huge dam behind the village to protect it from rock and mudslides.
The extent of the danger was revealed by a 12-year study, which showed that parts of the Schafberg mountain behind the village are not solid rock, as previously assumed, but permafrost, a frozen mass of loose earth and stones.
Studies carried out by the scientists between 1987 and 1999 revealed that the base temperature of the permafrost was increasing, and in some areas approaching melting point.
Global warming to blame
Felix Keller, a permafrost specialist with the Engadiner Academy and a member of the research team, says global warming is the most likely cause of the increase in temperatures.
"The behaviour of permafrost is very dependent on weather and climatic changes, and the thawing of the permafrost in the Alps is a clear indicator that global warming must be taken seriously."
Keller warns that Pontresina would be swept away, if the permafrost on the Schafberg mountain started to melt.
"What we have up there is 100,000 cubic metres of loose earth and stones. If that were to thaw and slide downwards, the consequences for Pontresina would be catastrophic.
"The chances are still remote that such a thing could happen," Keller adds. "But it is a possibility, and the likelihood increases with rising temperatures."
Pontresina has traditionally taken great care to protect itself from natural disasters - it began building avalanche defences as long ago as 1880, and there are 16 kilometres of them on the Schafberg mountain above the community.
The study's conclusions have prompted an equally urgent response. The town council has approved a SFr7 million plan to build a huge dam behind the village, which should protect it from rock and mudslides.
It is the biggest building project ever undertaken in Pontresina; bulldozers, diggers and dumper trucks are busy all day long. Already over 1,000 trees have been cut down to make way for the dam, and their discarded roots have formed a small mountain of their own, 20 metres high, at the edge of the construction site.
Need for protection
Despite the magnitude of the project, and its effect on the local surroundings, there has been little opposition from Pontresina residents or from environmental groups.
Town council president, Eugen Peter, says this is because people understand the need for protection.
"No one wants to live with the threat of natural disaster," said Peter. "Even if the risk is small, no one wants to say they failed to act after they were warned of the dangers."
A stark example of what could happen in Pontresina occurred last year, when 13 people were killed by a mudslide, which swept away parts of the village of Gondo in canton Valais.
Attention has focused on Pontresina because of the pre-emptive steps it is taking, but many areas of Switzerland face similar dangers.
Between four and six per cent of Switzerland's entire surface area is permafrost - more than twice that taken up by glaciers - and over 300 cable cars and chairlifts have their stanchions anchored in permafrost rather than solid rock.
Felix Keller thinks Pontresina's swift action in facing up to the risk should be an example to other alpine communities. "Pontresina is a pioneer. It is the first mountain community in Europe to take action against a potential danger caused by global warming.
"But Pontresina is not alone in having thawing permafrost," he adds. "International studies have showed that temperatures are rising in areas of permafrost right across Europe."
No effect on tourism
The local tourist board is a keen supporter of Pontresina's dam project, too. The director of tourism, Markus Legier, says the building project has had no effect on tourist numbers, despite the size and intensity of the work going on.
"You can't see or hear the work from the village so it does not disturb our guests," he says. "We have been completely open with people from the start. We have explained the project and why we are doing it; it's the only way to deal with it."
Legier believes Pontresina's decision to take pre-emptive measures in the face of possible natural disasters could in the long term have beneficial effects on tourism.
"Visitors will see that we have researched the risks carefully and have taken positive measures to guarantee not only their safety, but ours as well," he said.
by Imogen Foulkes