Two hundred years ago this December a huge part of the Weisshorn glacier in Switzerland crashed down several thousand feet to the valley below.
At 6am on December 27th 1819 the villagers of Randa, near Zermatt, were awoken as millions of tonnes of snow and ice swept away boulders, rocks, gravel and mature larch trees. Though the debris missed the village the force of the slide created a blast of air that moved entire buildings and their contents, burying 12 people, all but two of whom escaped with their lives.
Eyewitnesses described the noise of the falling mass as the loudest thunder and said a bright flash accompanied the slide before darkness once again enveloped the village.
First light revealed the utter devastation of the avalanche that have covered an area of pasture 2,400ft by 1,000ft by 150ft high.
It was not the first avalanche to bring disaster to Randa. In 1636 the village was destroyed by a similar avalanche when 36 people were killed. It is said that that occasion saw a much greater chunk of the flacier fall from the slopes of the mountain, at 14,783ft the 5th highest in the Alps.
Two other less serious falls happened in 1736 and 1786 but not precisely in the same place. This time only a small part of the glacier fell down.
Could a similar disaster happen again? With climate change and the nature of the Alps being constantly on the move it is possible. Earlier this month it was reported that part of a glacier on the Mont Blanc Massif, just 40 miles away as the crow flies, was on the brink of collapse.
I don’t have local figures but a look at the recent climatology in London shows that anomalies during the past couple of years – warmer than average summers and low rainfall – have been similar to what happened in 1819.
Of course the difference between now and 1819 is that we have early warning systems in place that can help prevent loss of human life in the event of a catastrophic avalanche.
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