- Written by Imogen Foulkes
- BBC News, Bern
Millions of cubic meters of rock fell on a small Swiss village, with huge boulders blocking the roads – some of which fell within inches of homes.
The entire village of Brienz, population 70, was evacuated in mid-May, when geologists warned that a massive rockslide was imminent.
Village authorities and geologists
The rocky surface directly above the village, called the “Island”, has been unstable for decades.
But this spring, the rockslide is starting to accelerate.
Many of the Prinzers had expected that they would leave their homes temporarily, but were unhappy that the eviction order had suddenly come out. Days before the order arrived, they were told to expect to move sometime in late summer.
Instead, they were called to an emergency village meeting on 9 May and told they had 48 hours to leave.
In the weeks that followed, some expressed frustration that the expected massive rock avalanche had not occurred. They asked why they could not return home when the boulders seemed to be falling slowly and harmlessly.
On Thursday night, mountain authorities responded and said the village had been very lucky and had a miraculous escape.
Two-thirds of the loose rock, estimated to be more than two million cubic meters in total, was shattered.
To the villagers’ relief, the helicopters that assessed the scene reported no visible damage to homes, but there was little prospect of returning home soon. There is still up to 1 million cubic meters of loose rock on the mountain above.
Even if the falling rocks don’t destroy people’s homes, there is danger to anyone in the area.
Christian Gartmann, a spokesman for the village authorities, told Swiss television that large boulders smashed together as they fell could create rock fragments that rained down “like cannonballs”, smashing windows and causing serious injuries.
Some wonder if Prinz’s situation is due to climate change. The Alpine regions of Switzerland are particularly sensitive to global warming.
As glaciers shrink, and permafrost in mountains begins to melt, rocks become unstable.
Indeed, the mountain above Brienz does not contain permafrost, but unusually heavy rains this spring, also linked to global warming, were certainly a factor in the evacuation order. The mountainside, wet with water, began to slide faster towards the valley.
Geologists warn that mountainous regions can expect more rockslides as the climate changes.
For now, the residents of Brienz continue to wait to return home.
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