Main facts about glaciers and climate change

There are about 1,800 glaciers in the Swiss Alps Last year 84 of the 91 glaciers under observation receded
During the hot summer of 2003 between 5-10% of the glacier surface melted. Between 1850 and 1975 the major glaciers lost half their mass
Average temperatures in Switzerland rose double the average rise on the northern hemisphere since the beginning of the 20th century.Average temperature in Switzerland rose by about 2 degrees Celsius in the last 30 years
It’s believed that temperatures in Switzerland will rise by another 2 degrees Celsius in winter and 3°C in summer within the next 50 years
Source: swissinfo/Swiss Radio International (SRI)

Rising sea levels, melting glaciers
– Climate change in the Alps

Climate change made it to the top of the international agenda. Whereas, in Malaysia, rising sea levels are among the many negative effects caused by climate change, mountainous regions face other dangers

Climate change poses a serious challenge to social and economic development in all countries. While people in developing countries are the hardest hit by an increased incidence of droughts, flooding and tropical storms, the effects of climate change will also be felt in Switzerland. There is a risk of more frequent extreme events such as flooding or heat waves, and snowfall will become increasingly rare at lower altitudes.
Scientists have warned that the Swiss Alps will no longer be covered by ice at the end of the century, if glaciers continue to melt at the current rate. Changes to the natural alpine environment such as changes in precipitation patterns and availability of water resources, are expected. Extreme weather events are likely to occur more often.

The Alps are a mountain range stretching along an arc of about 1200 kilometres and cover an area of about 190,000 square kilometres. The Alps, which are shared by Monaco, France, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria and Germany is the ‘water tower’ of Europe, source to three principal rivers – the Rhine, the Rhône, and the Po. They are also one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in Europe with over 30,000 animal and 13,000 plant species. It goes thus without saying that, changes in the climate of the Alpine region does not only affect the 15 million people living within its geographical boundaries, but could affect a much bigger geographical part of Europe.

Innovative adaptation solution to protect the snow on Swiss ski slopes

In the Swiss ski resort of Andermatt, with its world renowned slopes on the Gemsstock-Glacier (2961 m ü.M.), innovative solutions are employed to protect the snow layer on the glacier from melting away in the hot summer sun. Due to the melting of the glacier, huge amounts of snow had to be piled up at the beginning of the ski season to build up a ramp, to give access from the summit station of the cable-car to the slopes.
The ramp of snow and the uppermost part of the glacier is now covered by a novel type of nonwoven by a Swiss textile producer. With scientific support from glaciologists of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), the project was continuously evaluated over a period of several weeks. The expectations have been met! By applying 3000 square meters of the glacier-protection nonwoven at the summit station, it has been possible to largely stop the melting away of the snow and ice ramp.

The Alps are particularly sensitive to climate change, and recent warming in the European Alpine region has been roughly three times the global average. Recent years have been the warmest in the past 500 years of history. Climate models project even greater changes in the coming decades, including a reduction in snow cover at lower altitudes, receding glaciers and melting permafrost at higher altitudes, and changes in temperature and precipitation extremes.

These climatic changes are impacting a system that is not only of critical economic and ecological importance, but one which is also already vulnerable to a wide range of natural hazards as well as demographic and environmental pressures. The viability of measures to adapt to the impacts of climate change is therefore, of critical importance for Alpine countries.

In recent decades, revenues generated from the tourism industry provide a significant contribution to the economy of Alpine countries. Under a warmer climate, the number of naturally snow-reliable areas would drop significantly. Even when the winter tourism industry has responded to the implications of observed climatic changes, and a range of technological and behavioural adaptation measures have been put into practice, technologies such as artificial snow-making may not suffice to prevent reductions in snow-reliability. Transition towards non-snow dependent economic activities might be needed for a good part of the over six hundred ski resorts in the Alps: Under the projections for a 2 °C warming, it is estimated that the snow line, as well as the line of natural snow-reliability, will rise by another 300 metres altitude, which is for many low-lying resorts an existential threat. The Swiss ski areas will be, due to their relative altitude, the least affected in the Alps. And even if changes become inevitable, those will not occur overnight, and it can be expected that the industry is smart enough to adapt itself to the new challenges.

Switzerland and the Kyoto-Protocol

In 1992, the international community concluded the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, followed in 1997 by the Kyoto Protocol. With those instruments, a wide range of commitments, which include research, education and communication, specific measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and support for developing countries were agreed upon.
With the Kyoto Protocol, the industialised nations have an obligation to cap or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Switzerland has a reduction-obligation of 8%. With a wide range of measures, covering many sectorial policies such as huge investment in public transport utilites, fuel standards for vehicles and other energy efficiency measures, the construction sector and last, not least, projects under the clean development mechanism, Switzerland will reach its Kyoto-target.

However, more worrisome are the challenges brought about by natural hazards, which might increase in their numbers and amplitudes, due to climate change. Though Alpine people are, through the history of the creation of their livelihoods, used to cope with natural hazards, and natural hazards always had significant impacts on societies and economies, climate change might create fully new patterns.

In terms of vulnerability, many hazards which have strong linkages to climate change, such as hazards related to glaciers and permafrost areas, actually, have relatively low economic significance. On the other hand, hazards with considerably higher economic and social significance, such as floods and windstorms, have more complex and less certain linkages with climate change. However, those events have negative impacts in a much wider geographical region than the Alpine arc. The extreme whether events, which always occurred, might occur more frequently and their economic and social amplitude might be manifold, from what is known from the past. Switzerland faces thus, in addition to the significant challenges in dealing with current hazards, new challenges by the implications of climate change.

Even when from a global perspective, the Alpine countries, due to their economical strength and technical capabilities, have a very high adaptive capacity, with regard to dealing with natural hazards and other perils brought about by climate change, those are not to be neglected: Climate change will hit us all and everywhere. Switzerland has thus an interest that climate change is mitigated globally and is ready to participate in measures which might go well beyond the present regime under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto-Protocol.

Climate change in the European Alps: Adapting Winter Tourism and Natural Hazards Management, published by OECD Publishing, January 2007-06-26
Climate Change and Switzerland 2050, Advisory Body on Climate Change (OcCC), swissinfo/Swiss Radio International (SRI) is an enterprise of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC)
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