Climate Change Is Already Claiming the Alps

The Waxeggkees glacier stands high above the basin it still filled in the early 1900s with ice in the Zillertal Alps near Ginzling, Austria. Glaciers in the region have retreated significantly over the last 100 years, with many having mostly lost the tongues that descended over a kilometer long into basins they ground from the rock.

Source Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Why you should care

Warming hits some environments faster that others — and that could be catastrophic for central Europe.

The last week of October, the winter resort of Kitzbühel, Austria, was scheduled to open for ski season. Trouble was, temperatures were a balmy 73 degrees Fahrenheit. So lift operators plowed a strip of snow nearly half a mile long from a glacier to the bottom of the ski hill using snow they had stored over the summer. They weren’t alone: The ski resort of Davos, Switzerland, created a cross-country ski course out of last season’s snow for national teams to use for practice. 

Welcome to the real effects of climate change. While the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned of irreparable damage to the Earth if global average temperatures rise above 2 degrees Celsius, that has already happened in these European mountains:

In the Alps, ground-level air temperatures are climbing nearly twice as fast as the worldwide average. 

Temperatures here are estimated to have risen about 2 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, compared to 1 degree elsewhere. Even if average temperatures could be limited to 2 degrees globally — the temperature rise after which scientists estimate global catastrophe hits — that would translate to a more than 3.4 degree rise in the Alps. And those glaciers athletes want to ski on in the early winter could turn to wet slush.

“Nobody here has realized that the temperature has already increased by 2 degrees,” says Kurt Lanz, an executive board member of Economiesuisse, a lobbying group for Swiss businesses.

In addition to possibly devastating winter activities, which account for about 80 percent of mountain tourism revenue, there are costs stemming from landslides, debris flows, flash flooding, drought, heat waves and forest fires. Then there are other intangibles.

“How do you put a monetary price on a mountaintop covered with snow?” asks Daniel Farinotti, a glaciologist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research.

Europe's Melting Glaciers: Zillertal Alps

A flower blooms in a basin among rocks deposited by the retreating Hornkees glacier in the Zillertal Alps near Ginzling, Austria.

Source Sean Gallup/Getty Images

More frustrating for the people who live here is that without international cooperation, little can be done. Lanz notes that tiny Switzerland is responsible for 0.1 percent of global emissions, the cause of the warming. “Regardless of what we do, it’ll get worse,” he says. 

Lanz says he was dismayed at the news that the U.S. has officially given notice that it is pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change. Since 1990, Switzerland has reduced its CO2 emissions by 12 percent while still doubling its domestic economy. They’ve done that by moving to renewable energy, raising building standards and providing tax incentives to refurbish existing buildings. That alone, he says, is proof that it is possible to tackle climate change and still grow. Environmentalists, who won big in October’s election, believe there is more to do — like institute a carbon tax.

Most startling for scientists is how fast the environment is changing. From the time he began studying them in 2007, Farinotti knew glaciers were melting. But seeing with his own eyes exactly how quickly they have changed — a 10 percent loss of mass in the last five years — has shocked him. 

“I thought this would happen, but I am surprised at how quickly it goes. It is indeed a bit worrying,” he says. “Without action, this will continue the same way for the next 10 years.”

Nearly all mountain surface air temperatures in western North America, the European Alps and high mountain Asia have outpaced global warming rates, according to the latest IPCC report from June. As peaks lose their shiny blankets of snow, which reflect heat, the darker colored mountains emerge and absorb heat faster, speeding up the process.

Because of that, the Alpine region’s glaciers are expected to melt by the end of this century. Snow will fall less frequently in the higher altitudes, while lower elevations like Bern, Switzerland’s capital, or Zurich, its largest city, may see no snow at all, Farinotti says. 

Permafrost, which acts as the glue that holds the mountains together, could thaw. As rain intensifies, landslides, debris flows and even flash flooding will increase. Vegetation will change. Some plants will creep to higher elevations and others won’t be able to survive. This could mean many species, which rely on those plants to eat, die out. 

Mountains provide about half of all drinking water worldwide, but the source is becoming unpredictable as warmer temperatures melt glaciers and as precipitation patterns change. 

Last summer, farmers grazing their cattle ran out of water in the high Alps, forcing the Swiss army to helicopter it in.

Several global studies agree that overall temperature rise is more pronounced 500 meters above sea level. The evidence also is overwhelming that human behavior is the main contributor to surface temperature increases in high mountain regions since the mid-20th century, amplified by regional events, like land use change in the western U.S. and aerosol emissions in the western Himalayans, the IPCC report concludes. The Swiss government and the Swiss Academies of Sciences fund the Mountain Research Initiative, which coordinates international research, and on Halloween issued a worldwide call to action. 

According to Lanz, the global cost of helping lower carbon emissions and our energy needs will be less costly than doing nothing. “Everyone expects a silver bullet, that technology will solve the problem,” says Farinotti. “Change will only happen if we convince people that it’s uncool to drive a big car, uncool to go to the Bahamas on your two-week vacation.”

Or when resorts use bulldozers to move six-month-old snow to a green hill so holidaygoers can ski in October. 

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