In this study, rapid topographic changes and increased erosion rates caused by massive slope failures in a glacierized and permafrost-affected high-mountain face were investigated with respect to the current climatic change. The study was conducted at one of the highest periglacial rock faces in the European Alps, the east face of Monte Rosa, Italy. Pronounced changes in ice cover and repeated rock and ice avalanche events have been documented in this rock wall since around 1990. The performed multi-temporal comparison of high-resolution digital terrain models (DTMs) complemented by detailed analyses of repeat photography represents a unique assessment of topographic changes and slope failures over half a century and reveals a total volume loss in bedrock and steep glaciers in the central part of the face of around 25 × 106 m3 between 1988 and 2007. The high rock and ice avalanche activity translates into an increase in erosion rates of about one order of magnitude during recent decades.
The study indicates that changes in atmospheric temperatures and connected changes in ice cover can induce slope destabilization in high-mountain faces. Analyses of temperature data show that the start of the intense mass movement activity coincided with increased mean annual temperatures in the region around 1990. However, once triggered, mass movement activity seems to be able to proceed in a self-reinforcing cycle, whereby single mass movement events might be strongly influenced by short-term extreme temperature events. The investigations suggest a strong stability coupling between steep glaciers and underlying bedrock, as most bedrock instabilities are located in areas where surface ice has disappeared recently and the failure zones are frequently spatially correlated and often develop from lower altitudes progressively upwards. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.