MUNICH — In many places in the northern Alps, the winter sports season is already over before Easter. Some view the mild winter as a kind of foretaste of climate change, but experts warn against reading too much into any single year’s weather.
“What was extreme is that the weather this winter on the whole northern half of the globe lasted as long as it did,” says Peter Höppe, head of geo-risk research at Munich Re, one of the world’s major reinsurers. “But the whole pattern of this winter, with the extreme cold temperatures in North America and the warmer temperatures and storms in Europe, is not an indication of climate change.”
A new UN climate report five years in the making offers a sobering glimpse of what is to come, especially if nations don’t act to mitigate greenhouse gases. In the opinion of many researchers, climate change doesn’t just mean milder weather but mainly more extreme conditions such as storms, floods and droughts. “The problem with climate change is that things happen that haven’t happened before, so they lie outside our realm of experience,” says Frank Paul of the University of Zurich’s Geographic Institute.
In the Alps, average temperatures will rise by a few degrees by 2100. Just how much depends on the model used to make the calculations, and to what extent protective measures are taken. In any case, the manifestations are expected to be green pastures instead of ski slopes, rain instead of snow, along with falling rock and disappearing glaciers.
A Swiss “CH2014” impact report aimed at predicting what can be expected from climate change shows the result of a simulation with 50 glaciers: Their ice masses will have virtually disappeared by the end of the century. Many other Alpine regions are also expected to be glacier-free by that time.
Switzerland would thus lose its position as Europe’s water reservoir. “There are major dependencies that we don’t see,” says Paul. Glacier water fills water reservoirs that function as buffers for the European electricity network. “If that buffer capacity is lost, power outages become more likely.”
As glaciers are now melting, new lakes are being created. These could well add up to 500 in Switzerland alone by the end of the century.
Thousands of kilometers towards the east, people in the Himalayas are confronted with the same problem, only there far bigger glaciers are melting and threatening to flood whole villages.
But there are also threatening situations in the Alps. At the Grindelwald glacier, a lake filled up a few years ago, requiring the government to spend millions to reduce water levels. And extremely hot weather conditions in the summer of 2003 increased the incidence of falling rock and landslides.
On the Matterhorn, at an altitude of at 3,400 meters, falling rock required mountain climbers to be brought to safety by helicopter. Even if many researchers don’t see the summer of 2003 as a foretaste of climate change, it still left an impression of the impact climate change could eventually have.
Among the dangers: Ice that holds rocks together melts. In the permafrost — the permanently frozen ground — temperatures rise. Ski lift installations built on what was ice-hard ground start to slide, and tears rip through construction. There is ever greater danger of falling rock, pastures start slipping and sliding, and so on.
What had been attractive climbing sites could become off-limits, and tourism could be negatively impacted.
The silver lining
But Switzerland’s “CH2014” impact report reaches the conclusion that climate change would have more than just an adverse impact on tourism. If no far-reaching climate protection measures are taken, by 2085 in Switzerland the number of summer days when the temperature reaches 25°C will double.
“This development could turn out to be a window of opportunity for the tourism and leisure markets,” the report says. And indeed environmental protectionists have for a long time been recommending that resorts focus on developing summer tourism instead of buying equipment like new snow cannons.
Less frost also means longer vegetation periods, and so could also possibly offer opportunities to the farming community.
Compared with other areas of the world, the rich countries of the Alpine region could come off relatively well despite climate change. Says Peter Höppe of Munich Re, “I don’t see any catastrophes befalling the Alps.”