Video: Alps glaciers melting

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/9/2006 8:17:53 PM ET 2006-02-10T01:17:53

They are the jewels of the Alps — glaciers, thousands of years old.

These majestic rivers of ice span the European continent and have been the pillars of its ski industry, providing year-round skiing in resorts like Val Senales, in the Italian Alps — until now.

“The future, I think, is black. Completely black,” says ski instructor Jimmy Rosito. “I'm really worried.

Global warming, climatologists say, is melting these glaciers — and not slowly.

The glaciers, some warn, will all but disappear in 50 years.  Already, melting permafrost threatens glacier ski stations and lifts, leaving resort officials in a critical race against the elements.

“The glacier is our gold for the business,” says Pitztal Glacier Manager Willi Krueger, “and we have to keep it.

So, over the summer, something revolutionary was rolled out — giant strips of white fleece the size of football fields. It’s an Austrian and Swiss experiment. The polyethelene foil acts like a giant picnic cooler, keeping the sun out and the cold in. And, it works.

“Wrapped” glaciers lost just a fraction of their mass. Some even grew.

But wrap a whole glacier? Hardly. At a whopping $70,000 a sheet, only the most vulnerable parts of ski runs can be covered.

But environmentalists give wrapping the cold shoulder, calling it a waste of money, better spent on reducing greenhouse gases.

“We can protect, absolutely, sure, a small part,” says ecologist Markus Breitenberger, “but we cannot protect — we cannot stop, generally, the warming up of the climate.”

Even the glacier wrappers admit it's like putting Band-Aids on open wounds.

But they're afraid that if they don't apply first-aid now, then in just a few years' time, their livelihoods will melt away — just like the glaciers.

So, increasingly under threat, people here say they're willing to try anything that buys some precious time.

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