As climate change thaws the mountain peaks, the risk of rockfall science and technology increases

FILE – In this file photo dated May 18, 2013 published by mountain guide Adrian Ballinger of Alpenglow Expeditions, a climber pauses on the way to the summit of Mount Everest in the Khumbu region of the Nepalese Himalayas. An avalanche swept down a climbing route on Mount Everest early Friday, April 18, 2014, killing at least 12 Nepalese guides and missing three in the deadliest disaster on the world’s highest peak. (AP Photo / Alpenglow Expeditions, Adrian Ballinger, file)

Adrian Ballinger

By Emma Farge | Reuters

SCHIERS, Switzerland – As a scientist counts down “3-2-1”, five neon-colored spheres are being lowered and released by a helicopter hovering overhead. The balls roll down the Swiss mountain and topple beech and spruce trees as they accelerate.

These “test rocks” – the heaviest, weighing 7,000 pounds – are part of research aimed at understanding the growing risk of falling rocks around the world.

As climate change warms high mountain regions, boulders and rocks that have been frozen in for a long time are loosened and fall off.

“All of this goes in one direction: more unstable,” said Christian Huggel, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich who was not involved in the mountain experiments.

“It becomes more dangerous, and especially dangerous, when you invest heavily in vulnerable areas.”

The world was horrified in February when a piece of rock and ice broke off a Himalayan peak and swept down the mountain, killing more than 200 people and wiping out a hydroelectric dam on its way.

“Where a stone will land, how it will bounce off, how high it will jump … we can answer that,” said the physicist Andrin Caviezel, one of the scientists who assigned the cartoon-colored balls on the screwed gazebo near the Swiss eastern border Liechtenstein pursued.

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