Thursday, May 23, 2024

Massive Swiss rockfall stops short of evacuated Brienz village

Millions of cubic metres of rock have thundered on to a tiny Swiss village, with huge boulders blocking roads – some landing within inches of houses.

The entire village of Brienz, population 70, was evacuated in mid-May, when geologists warned a massive rockfall was imminent.

The rockface immediately above the village, nicknamed “the island”, had been unstable for decades.

But this spring, the rock slippage began to accelerate.

Many Brienzers had expected they would to leave their homes temporarily, but were unhappy the evacuation order had come so suddenly. Days before the order came, they had been told to expect to move some time in late summer.

Instead, they were summoned to an emergency village meeting on 9 May and told they had 48 hours to leave.

In the weeks since, some voiced frustration that the predicted massive rockfall had not happened. They asked why they could not go home when the rocks seemed to be trickling down slowly and harmlessly.

On Thursday night, the mountain answered back and authorities in the eastern canton of Graubünden say the village had a very lucky, narrow escape.

Two-thirds of the loose rock, estimated to measure more than two million cubic metres in total, crashed down.

To the villagers’ relief, helicopters assessing the scene reported no obvious damage to houses, but there is little prospect of going home soon. There is up to a million cubic metres of loose rock still on the mountain above.

The masses just missed the village but left behind a meter-high deposit on the main road near the school building.

The rockfall missed the empty village by a hair, according to a statement from local authorities

Even if the falling rocks do not destroy people’s houses, there is a risk for anyone in the area.

Christian Gartmann, spokesman for the village authorities, told Swiss TV that large boulders crashing into one another as they fell could create rock splinters that hurtled “like cannonballs”, smashing windows and causing serious injuries.

Some wonder whether Brienz’s situation is due to climate change. Switzerland’s Alpine regions are especially sensitive to global warming.

As the glaciers shrink, and the permafrost high in the mountains begins to thaw, the rock becomes unstable.

In fact, the mountain above Brienz has no permafrost, but this spring’s unusually heavy rain, also linked to global warming, was certainly a factor in the evacuation order. The mountainside, sodden with water, began to slip faster towards the valley.

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