ROME–The road that winds towards France from Courmayeur in Italy’s spectacular Aosta Valley is an Alpine paradise. In the spring and summer, the Mont Blanc foothills are covered with a carpet of wildflowers set against a backdrop of the Western Alps, which make up Europe’s highest mountain range. Some 20,000 outdoor enthusiasts come here to hike the Italian side of Mont Blanc every year. In the winter, those numbers triple as glitzy chalet resorts offer breathtaking views and some of the best ski runs in Europe.
But all of that is in jeopardy due to the devastating effects of climate change. Tuesday evening, Italian civil protection authorities took the extreme measure of closing down the Italian side of Mont Blanc due to the imminent threat of around 9 million cubic feet of ice breaking away from the Planpincieux glacier on the Grandes Jorasses mountain on the Mont Blanc massif. To get an idea of how big that is, that much ice would make 67.3 million gallons of water if it melted.
Courmayeur’s mayor Stefano Miserocchi called the evacuation after a damning report by the Safe Mountains Foundation that showed new fissures in the ice. The glacier has been moving at a rate of between 20 and 24 inches a day, which has authorities concerned that it could crumble at any moment. Extreme heat this summer, followed by torrential warm rains this fall, have only made matters worse. No towns are directly in the path of the glacier, but the damage to infrastructure in terms of roads, ski runs, and the landscape would be devastating to the area.
“This phenomenon once again testifies that the mountain is in a phase of strong change due to climatic factors, therefore it is particularly vulnerable,” Miserocchi said in a statement. “This is a matter of public safety.”
The section of the glacier at imminent risk of collapse is currently at an altitude of 12,500 feet and straddles the border between France, Switzerland, and Italy. This entire region is supposed to be a crucial venue for the 2026 winter Olympics, which was just awarded to Italy this year. The French towns affected by the closure are Saint-Gervais-les-Bains and Chamonix in France, where the first-ever Winter Olympics was held.
The dire situation comes as world leaders met in New York for a Climate Action Summit this week. Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte, who attended the summit, said Wednesday that the Mont Blanc disaster is a call to action. “The news that part of Mont Blanc risks collapsing is a warning that should not leave us indifferent,” he said through his spokesman from New York. “It must shake us all and force us to mobilize.”
The crisis backs up another warning issued this week by the World Meteorological Organization, which released their new report to coincide with the climate summit in New York. In it they warn that if temperatures continue to rise at current levels, the ice on the Eastern and Central Alps could disappear completely within two or three decades. They say the only ice that would remain is only in the Western Alps, where the crumbling Mont Blanc glacier is about to break down.