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Monday, August 14, 2006

Tsunamis in Switzerland?

The Sunday Times August 13, 2006

Swiss alarmed by threat of lake tsunamis

SWITZERLAND is drawing up emergency plans to cope with tsunamis after scientists warned that rocks from crumbling mountains could tumble into the country?s lakes and cause devastating tidal waves.
The risk of a giant wave like the one that devastated southeast Asia at the end of 2004 may seem unlikely in a landlocked country, most of which is hundreds of feet above sea level, but experts insist it could happen and have drawn up a map highlighting the areas that are under the greatest threat.
Rising temperatures are causing the permafrost that binds the high peaks of the Alps to melt, making the mountains increasingly unstable. Some of the best known tourist resorts, including St Moritz, Saas Fee and Zermatt, have been warned they are vulnerable.
Last month half a million cubic metres of rock tumbled from the Eiger shrouding the nearby resort of Grindelwald in dust. Nobody was hurt, but geologists predict it could happen again. If rock plunged into a lake the ripples could produce a wave powerful enough to claim hundreds of lives, they said.
The Swiss environment ministry admits its emergency plan is still in the early stages. Its first priority is to identify where permafrost is present and where mudslides and rockfalls are likely as it melts under the effect of global warming.
Giant waves generated by such a rockfall landing in a lake swollen with melted snow would put towns and villages nearby in peril. Random rockfalls and mudslides already claim about three lives a year.
The Federal Office for the Environment has acknowledged the threat. ?Above 2,400 metres the ground is permafrost, permanently frozen. Due to global warming there is a risk of this ?permafrost line? rising over the next few decades,? said officials.
?This could trigger rockfalls, landslides and mudflows in the mountains. In certain areas tourist facilities or agricultural buildings could be struck directly.?
Roberto Loat, from the environment office?s hazard prevention division, helped draw up the permafrost map and warned there were many signs pointing towards impending disaster. ?We need to find out which regions are at risk. We know mini-tsunamis are possible, we just haven?t seen one yet,? he said.
?But either way locals and tourists who come to these mountains need to know about the dangers, to be aware of the risks. The risk is greater after a long hot summer like we just had, or after heavy rainfalls.?
Charly Wuilloud, head of the environment ministry?s natural hazards department in the canton of Valais, the most endangered area, said the region was making plans to deal with giant rockfalls. ?We already know some of the areas which are at a high risk, for example Ritigraben near St Niklaus, as well as Zinal and Martigny, where just last week a mudflow almost derailed a train. There are about 30 to 35 danger areas that we currently watch.?
But Roland Imboden, head of tourism in Zermatt, is more worried about a bad press than rockslides. ?The Swiss media have been over-reacting to the threat to us since seeing the map,? he said.
?It?s true Zermatt looks in a bad position, but the environment ministry told me there is nothing likely to fall on us. Personally, I?m more worried what the bad publicity will do to the tourist season than about a mountain falling on me.?

Be Joyful always, give Thanks in all circumstances

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