It Just Got Easier to Visit a Vanishing Glacier. Is That a Good Thing?

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Claude Folmer was about 40 years old the first time he visited the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in the French Alps. He remembers enjoying the panoramic view from the observation platform, then taking a short hike down to the ice, where he toured the ice cave that’s carved into the glacier’s surface.

Four decades later, on a mild, sunny morning in early February, Mr. Folmer — now 80 and accompanied by his adult son, Alain — was taking in a view of the same glacier. He was shocked by the change.

“The difference is enormous. The glacier used to be just below,” Mr. Folmer said, gesturing to the gravel-covered river of ice that now lies more than 800 vertical feet below the viewing platform. “For someone who doesn’t know how it used to be, it’s a beautiful scene. But when you know the difference, it really is sad,” he said.

Mr. Folmer, who lives near the French city of Albertville, traveled by train to Chamonix, the mountain town from which visitors can easily visit the glacier. He and his son happened to be there on the opening day of a gondola that transports visitors between the viewing platform and the ice below. The Folmers weren’t aware of the new lift — which replaces an older gondola built in 1988 — but when they learned of the news, neither was pleased.

“At some point, you have to leave the glacier alone,” the younger Mr. Folmer said. “There’s big machinery being installed. Where will it stop?”

It’s a question that many travelers are asking themselves, as climate change threatens a growing number of tourist destinations — from glaciers to coral reefs, ski slopes to low-lying islands. For thousands of years, humans have raced to be the first to scale a peak, cross a frontier, or document a new species or landscape.

Now, in some cases, we’re racing to be the last.

The term last-chance tourism, which has gained traction in the past two decades, describes the impulse to visit threatened places before they disappear. Studies have found that the appeal of the disappearing can be a powerful motivator. But in many cases, the presence of tourists at a fragile site can accelerate the place’s demise.

There is some evidence that a visit to a threatened place can inspire meaningful behavioral change in visitors, potentially helping to offset the negative impacts of a trip. But research is still in its early stages, and results are mixed.

In a place like Chamonix — where tourism is the mainstay of the economy, and where climate change is already having palpable effects on tourist offerings — such tensions are playing out in real time. The shift to a new way of interacting with the landscape may be slow to come, as many jobs — as well as tourist habits — are built into the old way of doing things. But some are already pioneering a new approach, and with the effects of global warming accelerating, change will have to come quickly.

The Mer de Glace, or Sea of Ice, which once reached from the slopes of Mont Blanc all the way to the valley floor in Chamonix, has been attracting visitors for nearly three centuries. Mark Twain, Mary Shelley and Alexandre Dumas were among the early tourists who visited Montenvers, the site of the Mer de Glace overlook, and helped spread the glacier’s fame.

These days, in a typical year, about half a million people visit Montenvers, said Damien Girardier, the head of the site, which is owned by the city of Chamonix and managed by the Compagnie du Mont Blanc. Most visitors arrive via the red cogwheel train that links the viewing platform to the middle of Chamonix, though some arrive on foot — or ski in. Every year, about 80,000 people ski down the Mer de Glace, a classic backcountry Alpine descent called “la Vallée Blanche” (the White Valley) that finishes near the glacier’s terminus below the viewing platform. They then either hike up to Montenvers with their skis — or they take the lift.

The new lift, which opened the first weekend of February, was built about a quarter of a mile up the valley from the 1988 lift, anticipating the glacier’s further retreat. In the 35 years since that old lift was constructed, the glacier has drawn back so much that about 600 steps had to be installed between the bottom of the lift and the surface of the ice. That made it harder for older adults and anyone with reduced mobility to reach the glacier from Montenvers. It also made for a long uphill slog for tired Vallée Blanche skiers at the end of a long day.

Mr. Girardier said the new lift, which cost 20 million euros, or about $21.6 million, was built in accordance with strict environmental controls. Its colors were chosen to blend into the landscape, a special cable was used to minimize noise, and most of the building material was transported to the site by train. The gondola was also constructed in a way that allows future generations to dismantle the structure easily — should they want to.

“In 15 years, the end of the glacier will probably have reached the lift,” Mr. Girardier said, “but it doesn’t matter. When you go to Iceland, people walk for an hour to get to the glacier. For us, it’ll be the same.”

The new lift is part of a bigger project that will also include the construction of a new educational exhibit, called the Glaciorium, about glaciers and climate change. The center is scheduled to open late this year, though some of the funding has yet to be confirmed.

In the meantime, day-trippers can visit the ice cave, which has been revamped with a new design and information displays, while skiers will be able to take the lift to end a day of skiing on the Vallée Blanche, an important source of work for Chamonix’s guiding community.

Julien Ravanello, a mountain guide with the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, leads about 20 Vallée Blanche trips per season. He said the new lift would make things more straightforward on a route that — with a guide — is within the grasp of most average skiers.

“Above all, we like it because it shows people the universe of the high mountains,” said Mr. Ravanello, who added that such an accessible glacial ski descent “is almost unique in the world.”

Capucine Pénicaud, a global health consultant and yoga instructor who lives in Chamonix, skis the Vallée Blanche once or twice a year.

“It’s a place that I love and at the same time makes me very sad,” Ms. Pénicaud said of the glacier, adding that her visits to the Mer de Glace almost always move her to tears. “I think there’s a real opportunity in going there, because you can understand global warming — and feel it,” she said.

But Ms. Pénicaud isn’t happy about the new lift. She said she didn’t mind the 45-minute hike up to the viewing platform at the end of a Vallée Blanche run. Also, the concrete for the project was mixed in the Chamonix Valley, near where she lives, then transported by helicopter to the site. “For the past two years, I have seen helicopters bringing concrete up here every half-hour. How much petrol? How much pollution? How much concrete?” she said.

The Compagnie du Mont Blanc confirmed that concrete for the project had been transported by helicopter, but added that the train had been prioritized for the transport of other building materials “for ecological reasons as well as financial ones.”

Can a visit to such a site prompt a change in behavior?

Researchers at the Mer de Glace have found that exposure to its fragile environment can inspire people to adopt environmentally friendly behavior — or at least to declare their intention to do so in a questionnaire.

A 2020 survey of summer visitors to the glacier found that 80 percent said they would “try to learn more about the environment and how to protect it.” Another 82 percent said they would stop visiting glaciers if doing so would protect them, while 77 percent said they would reduce their water and energy consumption.

More research would be required to see whether tourists follow through. But drawing on the survey results, the researchers concluded that using last-chance tourism as an opportunity to educate visitors about climate change — while also engaging people’s emotions and showing them concrete steps they can take to protect the environment — could maximize the environmental benefits of this kind of tourism.

Others are skeptical. Karla Boluk, a professor in the department of recreation and leisure studies at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, pointed to her research that found that a majority of last-chance tourists at two Canadian sites were unwilling to pay for carbon offsets.

“There’s an ethical paradox of last-chance tourism, and it involves the moral question of whether travelers acknowledge and respond to the harm they promote,” Dr. Boluk said.

“It’s important for us to engage in thoughtful decision-making and careful research to ensure that we are not contributing to the collapse of these places, exacerbating the issues caused by climate change,” she said, adding that tourist “destinations” are also places locals call home.

Elsewhere in the Chamonix Valley, the staff of the Research Center for Alpine Ecosystems is working to understand the potential impact of a different approach to nature tourism: citizen science.

Colin Van Reeth, an ecologist and the manager of citizen science programs at the center, described outings that he and his colleagues have organized on which participants are invited to stop at a pond during a hike to document the frogs they see. “For us, it’s a question of getting tourists involved in naturalist observations of the mountains,” Dr. Van Reeth said. Their hypothesis is that by strengthening people’s sense of connection with the natural environment, they might be able to inspire people to make lasting and meaningful changes to their behavior.

“It’s about identifying those small steps, those small stages of transformation,” Dr. Van Reeth said.

Some don’t need a nudge.

Standing at the overlook, Mr. Folmer, the 80-year-old visitor, said that he gave up flying two years ago out of concern for the climate, and that he makes local trips on his bicycle when he can.

“I don’t blame people who fly occasionally when they go on vacation,” Mr. Folmer said, looking down at the glacier. “But when you see this, you think each of us can make a little personal effort.”


Paige McClanahan, a regular contributor to the Travel section, is the author of “The New Tourist: Waking Up to the Power and Perils of Travel,” forthcoming from Scribner on June 18.

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