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ENVIRONMENT

Drought-hit Mont Blanc shuts shelters to dissuade hikers

Authorities in the French Alps said Friday they had closed down two popular mountain shelters used by Mont Blanc climbers because of potentially deadly drought-related rockfalls.

Drought-hit Mont Blanc shuts shelters to dissuade hikers
A picture taken on October 3, 2012, shows the "Refuge du Gouter" (3.835 meters high) on the way to the summit of Mont-Blanc. (Photo by JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT / AFP)

In a year marked by drought and heatwaves, rockfalls and gaping crevices have made access to the top of Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest mountain, even more difficult and perilous.

The mayor’s office in the Mont Blanc village of Saint-Gervais, said climbers were in “mortal danger” from rocks and shards coming loose because of dry weather and dropping from a height.

“All day long, we still see climbers going on the mountain range, all the time, as if this was Disneyland or the Parc Asterix,” said Saint-Gervais mayor Jean-Marc Peillex, in reference to two popular theme parks near Paris.

Hikers had been advised since last month to stay away because of the danger, but “they just don’t give a damn,” he told AFP.

READ MORE: ‘To pay funeral costs’ – Why Mont Blanc mayor wants to charge climbers

The closure of the two mountain shelters — Gouter with 120 overnight spots and Tete Rousse with 74, as well as a base camp accommodating up to 50 people — was to “show clearly that there is no accommodation available”.

The authorities had warned for weeks that falling rocks were a danger, he said, adding that crossing the Gouter mountain corridor represented “a mortal danger”, he said.

Nevertheless, 79 people stayed at the Gouter shelter Thursday night, he said.

The shelters will remain shut until normal weather conditions return, the mayor said, probably not before early September.

Peillex had warned Wednesday that Saint-Gervais would require a deposit of €15,000 from each hiker, saying the sum represented the average cost of a rescue operation and a funeral.

He was, however, advised that French law offers no basis for such a move.

A lack of snow during the winter has laid bare vast areas of greyish glacier — yellowish where sand dust from the Sahara has accumulated — riven with fractures on the Mont Blanc.

The heat did the rest, causing the fragile snow bridges to melt that make it possible to cross the crevasses, as well as leading to landslides.

Following several heatwaves, France is in the grip of severe drought, blamed by scientists on climate change.

On Friday, 100 municipalities across the country were without drinking water, Environment Minister Christophe Bechu said.

Calling the drought “historic”, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne called a crisis meeting Friday to seek solutions.

Scientists say human-induced climate change is amplifying extreme weather — including the heatwaves, droughts and floods seen in several parts of the planet in recent weeks — and say these events will become more frequent and more intense.

The international community has agreed that climate change poses an existential threat to human systems and the natural world.

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ENVIRONMENT

Ask the expert: Why is France’s drought so bad and what will happen next?

With France in the grip of an historic drought we asked a climate expert which areas are worst affected, what type of water restrictions we can expect to see in the coming weeks and how long the drought it likely to last for.

Ask the expert: Why is France's drought so bad and what will happen next?

Hydrologist and President of Research Organisation ‘Mayenne’ Emma Haziza answered The Local’s questions on the latest drought situation.

How does this drought compare to previous years?

When we look at previous years, France had four years of historic drought in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.

Last year (2021) saw higher rainfall because of a cold polar air front that settled over France and played a role in generating a lot of rainfall. But even when we look at last year, we can still see that outside of France there were already abnormally high temperatures. 

In 2017, 18, 19 and 20 there was still a very good amount of underground water that was refilled during the winter months. This shows that even with a healthy amount of rainfall in the winter, the summer still ended up being historically dry.

However this year, the water tables were not adequately refilled due to a low rainfall during the winter.

We have already seen three heatwaves and we are expecting a fourth. We have seen temperatures higher than average, with the month of May being the hottest registered in France. 

READ MORE: More than 100 French villages without tap water in ‘unprecedented’ drought

This means that even if the water tables were sufficiently refilled over the winter, we would still be in a bad position – but our current situation is even worse because of the low rainfall over the winter.

What areas are likely to be hardest hit by drought?

It is basically all over the country, but in particular the entire Loire basin, along the Mediterranean, and the Grand-Est region (in the east of France) will be impacted. The Atlantic coast will also be impacted as it has had mostly high pressure systems and almost no rain since January. 

Ultimately, local drought situations depend less on the area of France and more on the type of aquifer – whether the water table is deep and full.

More shallow water tables feed the rivers and many of these are drying up too. 

So does this mean the North and West can expect to be impacted too? Could these regions also need to restrict household water usage?

Yes, this means that the North (and Brittany) could be impacted too. 

The lack of water at the tap is making its way across the country – it depends on the water tables, not whether a village is in the North or the South. 

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: Is water likely to be rationed as France’s drought worsens?

We once thought that climate change was coming for the South first, but heatwaves are proving to accelerate drought and are impacting the north and the west as well. It is like a hairdryer all over France.

How long could it last?

As the forecast does not indicate rain any time soon, looking into the month of September the situation could become worse. This means that in many parts of the country we might have to wait until October to see the water tables begin to be refilled.

In 2017, the drought did not end until December and this year might be similar for the localities that do not get rain. This means we will need to continue supplying villages by bringing in trucks filled with water. 

With the drought, we can also expect that when rain does come that there could also be flash flooding. 

How can people best stay informed?

The government website Propluvia.fr allows you to see underground water levels and whether they have reached a critical state or not, as well as keeping up to date on water restrictions in your area. 

MAP: Where in France has water restrictions and what do they mean?

You can also keep up to date with the latest restrictions on The Local’s climate crisis section.

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