Mountains, mires, metal pollution: investigating past sulphidic ore mining in the Arlberg Alps

With accelerating speed and intensity, humans have used, altered and polluted alpine landscapes and ecosystems by hunting, livestock management and the extraction of natural resources. Despite their idyllic appearance, the Alps are nowadays a largely cultural landscape, full of mostly invisible scars by quarries, pits, shafts, fires, deforestation and soil erosion – not to speak of the touristic overuse in recent times.

This summer, while public life and research all over the world were still frozen by the pandemic, peatlands in the Alps were unimpressed and just went on growing – burying and storing carbon and information since the last glacial maximum. In spite of the circumstances, a small team led with Clemens von Scheffer, member of the ROOTS Hazards Subcluster (Link), managed to do fieldwork in the Austrian Alps. The mires they headed for are located close to St. Christoph am Arlberg in the Verwall area, at ca. 2000 m elevation, where only marmots, chamois and occasional hikers, but no viruses, roam. Only 100 years ago, mining operations for ores rich in zinc, lead, arsenic and iron were finally given up here. Yet still today, disintegrating stone buildings, shafts, buddle pits, bare mine dumps and thriving Silene rupestris – a heavy metal indicator plant – bear witness to the operations. While written proof goes back to the end of the Middle Ages, evidence of earlier extraction is inexistent.

Disturbed by cold rain and mosquitoes, the team was able to take several core profiles in direct proximity of the old mines. Back in Kiel, the process of drawing secrets from the old wounds of the murky depths of these mountain peatlands has begun. Not only will the geochemical analyses provide indications for episodes of heavy land use and, potentially, prehistoric mining but also reveal the environmental legacy of these past operations – heavy metal pollution adsorbed to humic substances and to countless tiny moss leaves.

For further information, please contact Dr. Clemens von Scheffer by sending an email to cscheffer(at)

AlpsFigure 1: Cored peatland (left), buddle pit and stone building (right) at St. Christoph am Arlberg. Photo by Clemens von Scheffer.

AlpsFigure 2: Preparing to take the third meter with a Russian peat corer. Photo by Clemens von Scheffer.

AlpsFigure 3: Freshly cored, well-preserved mossy peat. Photo by Clemens von Scheffer.

AlpsFigure 4: Pushing the corer into the mire by hand. Bare mine dump in the background. Photo by Clemens von Scheffer.


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