Mountains, climate, weather. These are the main themes of “Breve Storia delle Alpi tra Clima e Meteorologia” (A Brief History of the Alps in Climate and Weather) (Club Alpino Italiano/FrancoAngeli, Milan 2019). The book examines the period from the Late Middle Ages to the First World War, with some references to ancient times. It gives us a bird’s eye view of relationships between man, the alpine environment, and climatic variables over the course of time. Recent reports indicating the clear, negative effects of climate change are becoming an essential way to understand our impact on the world and to try to plan for a better future.
Glaciers, but that’s not all
Of all European environments, the Alpine setting is certainly the most affected by climate change, which is altering the landscape and having a profound negative impact in all mountain areas from Friuli Venezia Giulia to the Aosta Valley. Want an example? The case of the melting glaciers, which has been readily documented over the last century, including in photographs. Anyone with a minimum knowledge of technology can easily find some of these disturbing images on the web. They show the retreat of the glaciers in areas from the Dolomites to the Mont Blanc massif, including mountain groups such as the Ortles, the Cevedale, the Adamello and the Monte Rosa. Seen from a historical perspective, this glacial retreat first began immediately after the end of the “Little Ice Age” (1350-1850): a time when the advance of the terminal moraine caused great alarm to all the mountain villages in its path. Now, as we know all too well, we have precisely the opposite problem: the alpine glaciers are literally melting before our eyes, to the extent that they may well totally disappear from the Dolomites over the next few decades.
But it is not only the glaciers and the high-altitude environments that are changing: the Alps are undergoing huge transformations, and the extreme weather events that hit them with ever greater frequency are the clearest evidence of this. The devastation caused by Storm Vaia, the frequent floods resulting from the heaviest rainfall ever recorded, the succession of extreme events (such as massive hailstorms and heavy snowfall) are sounding many alarm bells. Indeed, they force us to question ourselves about our relationship with the Alps and the mountain climate, and to examine our attitude to climate change and our (more or less effective) responses in the face of resulting events.
When history shines a light on the present
Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps marked the starting point for journeys into the mountains spanning many centuries and growing in frequency during the Late Middle Ages, and which play an important role in our understanding of European history from the sixteenth century onward. After considering the context surrounding exploration of the Alps in the seventeenth century, in relation to environment, weather and climate, the book examines the reinterpretation of the mountain world by eighteenth-century philosophers and by Napoleonic and Austrian military technicians. It then looks at the studies produced during the positivist period, with a new focus on systematic meteorological observations, the creation of observatories throughout the Alps, and joint action on climate research involving both national bodies (including the Italian Alpine Club) and supranational entities. A final section focuses on the connection between the Great War and the Alpine environment, particularly in relation to climate.
by Alex Cittadella
Alex Cittadella was selected for a UNESCO Dolomites special prize for his “Breve Storia delle Alpi tra Clima e Meteorologia” (published by the Italian Alpine Club/Franco Angeli). The prize is awarded every year during the “Leggimontagna” book festival in Tolmezzo. The jury gave the following reasons for their choice: “We now have increasing evidence of the fact that the history of the Alps and the Alpine people is closely allied to changes in climate and weather patterns over the course of time. This book by Alex Cittadella aims to present us with a wide-ranging picture of the way that settlements, societies and customs have changed in an area that managed to maintain its distinctive cultural features for many centuries, using them to underpin every social, ethical and artistic construct. The author’s humanistic approach led him to consider aspects that are often overlooked, such as the pictorial element, and to focus particular attention on the Eastern Alps, which are often more neglected than the Western ones.”