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Aletsch: Europe's Longest Glacier
Aletsch's famous glacier—24 km (15 mi)—was at its longest 150 years ago, but now recedes 100 to 165 feet per year. Concern about the recession of the earth's ice formations has made preserving the Aletsch Glacier internationally significant. So UNESCO designated a 250-square-km (97-square-mi) area around the glacier, shared between the cantons of Valais (77%) and Bern (23%), as a protected site. Generations ago the Swiss sensed the need to safeguard the area and began placing parts in conservationist hands.
The glacier's starting point, Concordia Platz, is the confluence of three ice masses that move down from the Bernese Alps. Here the ice has been measured as deep as 2,952 feet—over twice the height of the Empire State Building. Another magnificent formation, the Mäjelensee is a lake with icebergs floating on top, carved into the glacier field with walls of ice and stone. As the glacier's ice recedes, nature reclaims the land, first with moss and small plants, then forest. Pro Natura, the conservation organization that oversees the region, describes the process as "forest emerging from ice." Though some of the area's pine and larch are 600 to 700 years old, extreme conditions keep them short. Animals thought to be extinct thrive here; chamois, martens, badgers, lizards, and birds have adapted to the elevation and temperature.
Cable cars ferry tourists to ridge tops above Ried and Fiesch, where 360-degree views of the sweep of ice are framed by extraordinary peaks. You can see the Bernese Alps, including the Sphinx station on the Jungfraujoch called the "Top of Europe"; the Valaisan Alps; and even into Italy and France. Hiking trails lead to the glacier's edge, and guides take trekkers across parts of the ice field. All around are places to admire nature's grandeur and be grateful that it is being protected.
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