Mont Blanc sits on the cross roads of Europe and it’s exceptional value and symbolism is in evidence to all. It’s rare qualities, its situation at the heart of Europe, and its position as Europe’s highest mountain give Mont Blanc a universal recognition. But, although Mont Blanc is the third most visited natural wonder on the world (behind the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls) it is the only one of the grand massifs of the seven continents which doesn’t benefit from UNESCO status. But why and what are these criteria?
The UNESCO convention for world heritage adopted in 1972 allowed for the designation of sites with an exceptional universal value: such as the pyramids in Egypt, the Galapagos Islands or Kilamanjaro. There are now 730 sites of which 144 are natural and 23 mixed (natural and cultural) in 125 different countries. 57 of these sites are mountains, or mountain ranges but Mont Blanc doesn’t feature.
Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Western Europe with an altitude of 4807m. With new technologies the altitude of Mont Blanc can be accurately measured and its oscillations measured (between 4807m and 4811m). This constant fluctuation is due to the level of snow which accumulates on the rock summit (which is estimated to be 4780m) which is in turn dependant on precipitation and temperature. It is foreseeable that with global warming there will be an augmentation in precipitation and this will favour an elevation of Mont Blanc. The rise of the massif continues today at a rate of 1.5mm a year but is in competition with the forces of erosion.
Due to the fascination with which Mont Blanc captures the spirit and the imagination the massif has played a leading role in the birth and evolution of geology. Literature, natural history and the history of science converge when one talks about the rock structures of the massif. This interest in Mont Blanc started with Saussare in the 1700s who studied Mont Blanc as the key to understanding the formation of the Alps and all mountain chains. So the massif du Mont Blanc was and continues to be an object of scientific interest of the premier order, which has permitted the advancement of our knowledge of the Alps. A heritage which must be developed and conserved for the future.
The Mont Blanc Massif is also an important entity for flora and fauna. It is surrounded by deep valleys, has a very marked altitude range from 800-4807m and a large number of different and varied valleys. One can find all the animals symbolic of the Alps - royal eagles, marmottes, choucas, chamois - all of whom have developed and adapted very specifically to the alpine life and harsh winters. The region is also a botanical garden with a number of rare and protected plants with a richness in variety due as much from the variation in altitude as the various orientations of the massif, the chemical composition of the rock and the ancestral ways of man in the lower regions. The importance of several habitats: pine forests, rocks, meadows and moraines assure a good representation of species.
The glaciers of Mont Blanc cover a surface area of 170 square kilometres and is characterised by a great diversity of glacial forms - a nearly complete collection. The enormous accumulation zones at altitude form several currents of ice from the famous Mer de Glace (with over 5 million visitors per year the most visited glacier in the world) the second largest glacial complex in Europe after Aletsch, to hanging glaciers such as Le Tour or the long cascades of ice like Les Bossons - which starts practically at the top of Mont Blanc and culminates in the depths of the valley below (3400m of declivity, the largest in Europe). The aesthetic value and pedagogic quality of this range of glaciers merits them to be made a sanctuary for the benefit of all.
Mont Blanc’s 17000 hectares of snow and ice also make it a huge reserve and of water and humidity and a great barrier to global warming. Its deep glaciers and their steep angle enable them to be more resistant to global warming than others. The subtle interactions of orientation, slope, altitude, latitude, the amount of solar energy reflected and the rate of precipitation are the origin of a number of very different microclimates from one valley to another. This unique richness make Mont Blanc the ideal laboratory to study climate change. Indeed, one can see in just the last 50 years an elevation of 300m in the alpine ecosystems.
Mont Blanc represents both nature and culture and stands at the heart of an overpopulated Europe as a last great wilderness. With its full representation of habitats, its offers opportunities to study the adaptation of life at altitude - in different seasons and microclimates - to study the development of the Alps, and to learn the history of the Alps. One of the unique characteristics of the Mont Blanc massif is that while it represents a mountain wilderness it is very accessible. This is part of what gives it its charm and equally its vulnerability. And this is why it needs and merit’s the protection and recognition of UNESCO.
“Do we really need to save this type of condor? Not really…Apart from the fact that by saving the condor we will be able to save ourselves.”
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