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Europe’s vanishing winter

A 3,000km cycle ride across the continent reveals the consequences of climate change – and what we can do to stop it

Capanna Margherita. Photos: PJ Åstrand, 2022

Cross-country skiing is a big sport in Sweden. When I was a child in Lugnet, a sports resort just outside the city of Falun, my parents would lace up my skis and send me out into the fresh snow. It’s a tradition I’ve carried on with my own children – after moving to Italy this was in the form of downhill skiing in the Alps. Some elements of this lifestyle have become impossible. As a child, I remember 4-5 months of snow cover during winter, and in Italy I would ski on the glaciers of Monte Rosa in Alagna even in summer. The adverts promised that you could “ski every day of the year…”

That was 1969. Now it’s just a dream.

Figure showing summer skiing at Punta Indren, Alagna in 1969, 1973. Photo: M Giardino, Univ. Torino

Climate change has drastically altered everything. In my lifetime, the glacier has retreated some 200 metres up the mountain. In winter, there used to be only natural snow, but now artificial snow is needed both in Falun, and Alagna. It is not sustainable. This year has been a disaster in Italy, with very little snowfall, even in the mountains. Saharan sand has blown in over the Alps, giving the snow a yellow tinge and bringing extremely high temperatures during spring and summer. 

The presence of sand means the ice does not reflect as much of the sunlight and instead it starts to absorb heat. This causes the rock and the ground beneath to warm up further, causing the ice to melt. It is now melting faster than ever.

Seeing my world change, I felt I had to do something to raise awareness about the dangers of climate change, and the threat this posed to things that I had taken for granted all my life. 

So, I decided to do this by joining up my two “paradises” – which are suffering because of accelerated climate change – by undertaking an arduous bike ride from Sweden to Italy, supported all the way by Protect Our Winters (POW), a winter sport climate activist group. Impossible in the winter, I made my 32-day journey (including 7 rest days) this summer, as a fierce heatwave took hold of Europe.

Figure showing the starting point in Lugnet (the ‘calm’) in Falun, Sweden

Climate change is becoming more visible – it’s more tangible now than ever before. And we see the effects not only in India or Africa, but also in Europe. We can see and feel it coming. It’s warmer up in Sweden and Rome’s climate is like a desert – it has not rained there since March.  In the Po valley in northern Italy, you can barely see the river anymore. Agriculture is suffering.

My cycle ride this summer was intended to bring attention to glacier retreat, but also to the damage climate change is causing to agriculture and the environment. I want to help promote a more sustainable way of living.

Glaciers comprise only 0.5% of the earth’s volume of ice. But if all the glaciers in the world were to melt it would cause significant knock-on issues.  Having worked for 25 years on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, I can clearly see the effect climate change is having on agriculture. In the winter it’s not snowing, and you have little or no runoff. Glaciers melting will jeopardise ecosystem survival. The reduced runoff will endanger plant life that is dependent on the water.  

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The end point Monte Rosa, Alagna, Italy

Rivers, such as the Ticino and the Po, are drying up. In Piedmonte this water is needed to flood rice fields, and it’s difficult to source it from elsewhere. Lago Maggiore is used as a large reservoir, so you cannot keep taking from the lake – ferries would not be able to dock at its ports any longer. We should be working hard to slow down such changes.

Climate change is cyclic, as a big ice age 4-8,000 years ago was followed by a comprehensive glacier melt before medieval times and then a smaller ice age between 1300 and 1800. Glaciers have been melting again since then, but human behaviour is speeding this up to dangerous levels. Ice comes and ice goes, but it’s indisputable that glacier ice is disappearing more quickly than ever – and that’s what is important; that’s what we need to make people aware of. 

Our lifestyles are causing this dangerous acceleration. In my work as an expert in remote sensing and photogrammetry – the technical study and analysis of visual data – I have been analysing the earth’s surface by making use of satellite imagery, aerial photography and other techniques. I can see what is happening to our world. 

But knowing the science is not enough. Just as important is finding a way for others to understand. My ride for glaciers, during which I completed more than 3,000 kilometres on my road bike, is proof that you can travel and see our beautiful Europe without causing any emissions. 

I don’t mean everyone could cycle from Sweden to Italy, but a lot of people are now cycling and that’s important. For winter sport and for tourism in general, Protect Our Winters wants to spread the message that travelling and especially flying is a substantial cause of CO2 emissions. It is important for us to do winter sports and to visit our favourite places, but only through sustainable travel, for example by train or at least four in a car. Building a new airport close to the ski resort just to enable one-day skiing – as some have planned to do – is not the best idea.

During my ride, a deadly avalanche hit Marmolada in Italy. I will never forget the date: 3rd of July. It was 10 degrees at 3,300 metres on that mountain. The temperature had been above zero for 23 days in a row. That should never happen – it’s far too high. This hot weather was the final trigger for the ice collapse. It was terrible to see what happened, and my ride became even more important for me. 

There’s a video on Instagram that shows the ice and rocks crashing down. Those 10 people who died didn’t have a chance. But in this video, you see two people close to it – at a certain point one turns to the other and they embrace. They are so sure they are going to die. The avalanche misses them by about 10 metres. It made me want to cry. 

I started my journey from Falun, which is in central northern Sweden. It was fantastic to see the countryside as I rode. Sweden has a lot of space, forests and clearings where you can even see moose. It all reminded me of my country’s Viking history. 

I took part in a night time race called Vätterrundan, around one of the biggest lakes in Sweden. It was a 315-km detour that took me 12 hours. It rained for nearly the whole time and I rode into a head wind for 150 km while going south – climate change isn’t always about heat. It was terrible, but when you’re wet, you’re wet, it doesn’t matter anymore. I was glad to get around, since of the 12,000 starters nearly 2,000 quit due to the bad conditions. 

Riding through Denmark was a joy – this is a country with a long cycling tradition and good cycle paths, which often ran beautifully close to the sea. A seam of agricultural land ran through Sweden, Denmark and continued into northern Germany. It was interesting to compare the different ripening stages of crops as I moved south. A whole day filled with a wonderful scent of strawberries lightened up the cycling. The landscape around Thüringen was beautiful with its historic villages. 

The long, seemingly never-ending ride along the Elbe ran through nature reserves and it was in one of these that an eagle with a half-eaten hare flew right over my head. Along the river, the local authorities had built walls to protect the river from flooding due to climate change. The mostly flat terrain with just a few hills took me down to Heidelberg and Strasbourg, where I had a great meeting with the Protect Our Winters France team. They rode with me for 100kms the day after.

Arriving in Strasbourg

When I reached the Black Forest, the climbing began towards Switzerland, and after Lake Konstanz I had a day riding at high speed with a strong tailwind south towards the start of the Alps. Here again, there were protective barriers on both sides of the Rhine, built as a result of climate change. Now, dry periods are followed by intense rain and flooding.

During my ride, I didn’t go to the top of any glaciers. I would do this only at the end in Alagna, and obviously without a bike – it’s too dangerous to cycle up. You do not reach an altitude of 3,000m with a bike, but I did cycle over the San Bernardino, the high mountain pass that takes you from Switzerland to Italy. The cars go through the tunnel, but we cyclists can enjoy the beauty of nature over the pass. It turned out to be quite easy climb up to 2,100 metres. I saw no or very little snow at the top. There was no snow or glacier ice.

The San Bernardino pass

The heatwave struck me physically when I came south of the Alps. It was incredibly hot descending towards Lago Maggiore. I could never have done this trip through Europe with the temperatures that I encountered south of the Alps. I would have had to plan very differently, getting up really early and resting under a tree for 4-5 hours in the middle of the day. 

The route across Europe was beautiful, both the mountains and the well-maintained agricultural landscapes. The experience lingers in my mind. I did maybe 70 per cent of the trip alone. You feel you become very sensitive, very humble. You cry easily when you see beauty, or talk to your family. It’s in this state that you really appreciate the landscape, the mountains, the countryside. 

You realize that we don’t need that many things – we don’t need all that commercial stuff that we keep focusing on. You become more thoughtful and focus just on the important things, like nature and the state of our planet. That’s a strong feeling. Every night I still dream of it. 

A couple of days after my arrival at Alagna, the end point of my journey, we held a small event to highlight Monte Rosa’s shrinking glaciers. It was organised by the Alagna Commune with presentations by the University of Torino, the Italian Glaciological Committee (CGI), POW Italy and finally me. 

Afterwards, I parked my bike and rested for 2 weeks before one final challenge. With some friends and expert guides, we walked up the glacier to Capanna Margherita. This is the highest hut of the Alps, situated above the Lys glacier on the summit of Punta Gnifetti (4,554m). The world is different up there and I will never forget the majesty it evoked. The way down was even harder than going up, because of all the crevasses, which have grown in number. The ascent had been at 03.30 in the morning, when it was still cold. We had to descend at 08.30 am to avoid the worst of the melting ice on the many ice bridges we had to cross. This is what is happening. This is what is so scary. I wonder how much longer we will be able to experience these icy beauties of the planet. 

A group of people hiking up a mountain

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The crevasses on the way down

Some practical issues

To be able to survive a trip like this you need to plan meticulously and take very little luggage. My bike weighs 6.5 kg and I had 5 kg of luggage (already too much). Under my saddle, I had chargers and repair kits (three flat tyres during the trip) plus a lock. Behind the saddle, I had one change of clothing, a toothbrush, a first aid kit and a pair of slippers. 

I was charging a hell of a lot of devices – bike computer, lights, gear, heartbeat device, mobile phone and watch. But the biggest thing was GPS navigation. You need to have planned the route on good software and to have done it in detail, backed up with maps offline since you might pass into non-4G territory. 

I planned each of the 32 days including where to sleep using Komoot (which suited me very well) but there are other options. I then saved the rides a posteriori in Strava. I then used headphones for the route directions – they were “bone transmitting”, meaning they fit just outside your ear and the sound goes through the bone. It’s essential, as it doesn’t close you off from the traffic. 

Cycling is both a physical and mental exercise. Physically I was lucky to suffer little; muscle ache in the neck and shoulder, blisters on my toes and some pain from the saddle. The mental impact was stronger. When I was cycling alone for eight to ten hours I put on my favourite music. Then what happens? For the first 30-40 km you think about how your muscles hurt, or how you slept badly and about your neck pain.  Then, after 50 km, other problems prey on your mind – your work problems, your family problems, your friendship problems. When you pass 100 km, you rise above that. You’re free. You can think better. You start to think creatively and start to solve problems – it’s a fantastic feeling and a state of mind I wish I could always enter.

I lost maybe 6 kg over the trip, even though I tried to follow a strict diet with a good balance of carbohydrates, and protein. The beauty of this is that if you consume a lot of calories, maybe 5,000 per day, you really start to know your body. It tells you physiologically and mentally whatever it needs. It’s really extreme and you eat exactly what you need, no more, no less. I like this feeling. Twice I experienced something that had only happened to me a long time ago in my twenties – I was at a restaurant and ordered a main course. After eating it I looked at the waiter and said, “please bring me another plate exactly the same…”

Pär Johan Åstrand rides 3100 km through Europe to raise awareness on Climate Change (CC) and to protect our glaciers. His project is #rideforglaciers and is made together with ProtectOurWinters (POW). Follow him on Instagram @parjohanastrand.

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