Austria scores badly for air quality

A new website which compares regional well-being across OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries shows that whilst Austria generally performs well, poor air quality is an issue.

Austria scores badly for air quality
Tyrol has the best air quality in Austria. Photo: APA

The OECD’s interactive website on well-being covers the organisation’s 34 member countries. It rates 362 regions with a relative score out of 10 in eight categories: income, health, safety, services, civic engagement, education, jobs, and environment.

The eight well-being factors are based on data measured at regional level on household income, life expectancy, homicide rates, broadband access, voter turnout, level of education in the workforce, employment rates and particulate matter in the air.

Austrian regions have the least variation in household income but overall Austria has low scores for air quality – which may come as a surprise to some inhabitants of the Alpine Republic, which has a reputation for clean water and fresh air.

Voralberg has the worst air quality in Austria, with two out of ten points which puts it in the bottom four percent, compared across all OECD regions. Vienna is not much better, with 2.5 points, and Tyrol has the best air quality, with 5.8 points. In comparison, Greater London, in the UK, scored 6.3 points for air quality.

The data for air quality comes from satellites which observe air pollution around the world, and is based on the regional average measurement of the number of people exposed to air pollution – but the figures are currently only an estimate, cautions Monica Brezzi, head of Territorial Analysis and Statistics at the OECD.

Brezzi told The Local there is currently no agreement to measure air pollution using one single, comparable method across OECD countries, but she hopes there will be in the future. Data for the seven other categories comes from each country’s National Statistics Office.

Air quality is still an issue for Austria despite substantial progress in reducing emissions, especially during the 1980s, Brezzi said.

The European Environment Agency noted in its Environmental Outlook of 2010 that the limit value for the daily mean of particulate matter (50 g/m not to be exceeded more than 35 times per year) was exceeded in several provincial capitals and small towns in Austria, while it was met in many places in the UK.

Overall Austria has quite a high-level of well-being, and as it is a small country there is less regional disparity, which is a good thing according to Brezzi.

The capital, Vienna, has better access to services and a higher average household income than the rest of the country but it does less well for employment, health, and education – which Brezzi said comes as a surprise as usually you would expect a metropolis to be a jobs hub.

She hopes the well-being website will start a conversation about the data, both at government and grass-roots level, but that the idea was not to swamp people with very detailed information.

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Austrian scientists race to reveal melting glaciers’ secrets

Jumping from rock to rock to rock over a creek formed off Austria's Jamtal glacier,  scientist Andrea Fischer worries that precious scientific data will be irreversibly lost as the snow and ice melt faster than ever.

Austrian scientists race to reveal melting glaciers' secrets

“I couldn’t have imagined that it would ever melt as dramatically as this summer… Our ‘archive’ is melting away,” says the glaciologist.

Fischer — vice director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences — has spent more than 20 years surveying Jamtal and four other Alpine glaciers across Austria’s highest peaks
for the oldest areas of ice.

For scientists looking to reconstruct the Earth’s climate in the distant past, such ice formations are a unique time capsule stretching back thousands of years.

glaciologist andrea fischer in the mountains

Glaciologist Andrea Fischer, vice director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, poses at the Jamtal Glacier (Jamtalferner) near Galtuer, Tyrol, Austria on July 20, 2022. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

The glaciers contain an invaluable treasure trove of data — as they grew, the ice encapsulated twigs and leaves, which can now be carbon-dated, Fischer explains.

And based on the age of such material and the depth where it was found, scientists can infer when ice grew during colder periods, or when warmer conditions caused it to melt.

But now the glaciers are melting rapidly — including the one in the remote and narrow Jamtal valley, not far from where tourists found the stunningly preserved 5,300-year-old mummy of Oetzi, the Iceman, in the 1990s.

jamtal glacier

Glaciologists Andrea Fischer (L) and Violeta Lauria from the Austrian Academy of Sciences walk on the Jamtal Glacier (Jamtalferner) near Galtuer, Tyrol, Austria on July 20, 2022. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

Temperatures in Europe’s highest mountains have risen by nearly two degrees Celsius in the past 120 years — almost double the global average, according to the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA).

The Alps’ roughly 4,000 glaciers have since become one of the starkest signs of global warming.

Glaciologist Andrea Fischer examines ice samples

Glaciologist Andrea Fischer from the Austrian Academy of Sciences looks at ice samples from the Jamtal Glacier (Jamtalfern) near Galtuer in Innsbruck Tyrol, Austria on July 20, 2022. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)
Disappear completely? 

The Jamtal glacier has been losing about one metre (three feet) from its surface annually, but this year it has already lost more than a metre, Fischer says.

“And we’ve got at least two months of summer left… where the glacier is entirely exposed to the sun,” she warns.

Snow usually protects most of the glacial ice from the sun until September, but the little snow that fell last winter had already melted by early July.

“This year is outrageous compared to the average of the past 6,000 years,” says Fischer.

“If this continues, in five years, Jamtal glacier won’t be a glacier any more.”

glaciologists measure ice shelf height under jamtal glacier

Glaciologists Andrea Fischer (R) and Violeta Lauria from the Austrian Academy of Sciences measure the height under a part of the ice shelf of the Jamtal Glacier (Jamtalferner) near Galtuer, Tyrol, Austria on July 20, 2022. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

By the end of the summer, Fischer fears that about seven metres of depth will have melted off the surface — or about 300 years of climate “archives”.

“We need the data the glaciers hold to understand the climate of the past — and to create models of what awaits us in the future,” she says.

Fischer and her team have drilled on both the Jamtal and other nearby glaciers to extract data, taking out ice samples up to 14 metres deep.

As temperatures rise and the glaciers become more unstable, they are compelled to take additional safety precautions — 11 people died in a glacial ice avalanche in the Italian Dolomites in July, the day after temperatures there rose to new records.

‘My heart is bleeding’

In Galtuer, the nearest village to Jamtal with 870 residents who are mostly dependent on tourism, the Alpine Club is already offering a “Goodbye, glacier!” tour through the once ice-filled valley to raise awareness about the effects of climate change.

Where the ice has retreated, scientists found that within three years about 20 species of plants, mostly mosses, have taken over. In some areas, larches are growing, according to Fischer.

jamtal glacier austria

A photo taken on July 20, 2022 shows the Jamtal Glacier (Jamtalferner) near Galtuer, Tyrol, Austria. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

“If the glacier is gone in five years, that’s a pity, because it’s part of the landscape,” says Sarah Mattle, who heads the Alpine Club.

“But then there’ll also be new paths, and maybe there’ll be an easier hike over the mountains than over the ice. It’ll all be a matter of adapting,” the 34-year-old adds.

Other locals like Gottlieb Lorenz, whose great-grandfather was the first manager of the 2,165-metre-high Jamtal cabin set up as a refuge for mountaineers, are heartbroken.

“My heart is bleeding when I think about how magnificent and mighty the glacier was and what a miserable tiny pile it is today,” the 60-year-old says.

He points at a black-and-white photo taken in 1882 showing a thick ice sheet flowing past the cabin.

Today, the ice is a 90-minute hike away.