The European Alps have experienced remarkable climate changes since the beginning of the Industrial Age. In particular, mean air temperature in the region increased at a greater rate than global temperature, leading to the loss of nearly half of the glaciated area and to important changes in the ecosystems. Spanning 1,200 km in length, with peaks reaching over 4,000 meters above sea level (m asl), the Alps have a critical influence over the weather in most of Europe and separate the colder oceanic/continental climate in the north from the milder Mediterranean climate in the south. The climatic differences between the main slopes are reflected into different climate changes—whereas the northern slope got wetter, the southern slope got drier. The consequences of these climate changes are not confined to the Alpine region. Being located in the center of Europe, the Alps provide water and electricity for over 100 million people. Alpine run-off is a major contributor to the total discharge of several major European rivers such as the Rhine, the Rhône, the Po, and the Danube. Therefore, climate change in the Alps can have significant economic impacts on a continental scale. Their convenient geographical position allowed scientists to study the Alpine climate since the very beginning of the instrumental era. The first instrumental meteorological observations in an Alpine valley were taken as early as the mid-17th century, soon followed by measurements at higher elevations. Continuous records are available since the late 18th century, providing invaluable information on climate variability to modern-day researchers. Although there is overwhelming evidence of a dominant anthropogenic influence on the observed temperature increase, the causes of the changes that affected other variables have, in many cases, not been sufficiently investigated by the scientific community.
Alpine Climate Change Derived From Instrumental Measurements
Alpine Ice Cores as Climate and Environmental Archives
The European Alps feature a unique situation with the densest network of long-term instrumental climate observations and anthropogenic emission sources located in the immediate vicinity of glaciers suitable for ice core studies. To archive atmospheric changes in an undisturbed sequence of firn and ice layers, ice core drilling sites require temperatures low enough to minimize meltwater percolation. In the Alps, this implies a restriction to the highest summit glaciers of comparatively small horizontal and vertical extension (i.e., with typical ice thickness not much exceeding 100 m). As a result, Alpine ice cores offer either high-resolution or long-term records, depending on the net snow accumulation regime of the drilling site. High-accumulation Alpine ice cores have been used with great success to study the anthropogenic influence on aerosol-related atmospheric impurities over the last 100 years or so. However, respective long-term reconstructions (i.e., substantially exceeding the instrumental era) from low-accumulation sites remain comparatively sparse. Accordingly, deciphering Alpine ice cores as long-term climate records deserves special emphasis. Certain conditions must exist for Alpine ice cores to serve as climate archives, and this is important in particular regarding the challenges and achievements that have significance for ice cores from other mountain areas: (a) a reliable chronology is the fundamental prerequisite for interpreting any ice core proxy time series. Advances in radiometric ice dating and annual layer counting offer the tools to crucially increase dating precision in the preinstrumental era. (b) Glacier flow effects and spatio-seasonal snow deposition variability challenge linking the ice core proxy signals to the respective atmospheric variability (e.g., of temperature, mineral dust, and impurity concentrations). Here, assistance comes from combining multiple ice cores from one site and from complementary meteorological, glaciological, and geophysical surveys. (c) As Alpine ice cores continue to advance their contribution to Holocene climate science, exploring the link to instrumental, historical, and other natural climate archives gains increasing importance.
Climate Change and Glacier Reaction in the European Alps
Glaciers are probably the most obvious features of Earth’s changing climate. They enable one to see the effects of a warming or a cooling of the atmosphere by landscape changes on time scales short enough to be perceived or recognized by humans. However, the relationship between a retreating and advancing glacier and the climate is not linear, as glacier flow can filter the direct signal of the climate. Thus, glaciers can advance during periods of warming or, vice versa, retreat during periods of cooling. In fact, it is the mass change of the glacier (i.e., the mass balance) that directly links the glacier reaction to an atmospheric signal. The mechanism-based understanding of the relationship between the changing climate and glacier reaction received important and significant momentum from the science of the Alpine region. This strong momentum from the Alps has to do with the well-established science tradition in Europe in the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, which resulted in a series of important inventions to measure climate and glacier properties. Even at that time, knowledge was gained that is still valid in the early 21st century (e.g., the climate is changing and fluctuating; glacier changes are caused by changing climate; and the ice age was the result of shifting climate). Above all others, Albrecht Penck and Eduard Brückner were the key scientists in this blossoming era of glacier climatology. Interest in a better understanding of the relationship of climate to glaciers was not only driven by curiosity, but also by several impacts of glaciers on human life in the Alps. Investigations of climate–glacier relationships in the Alps began with the expiration of the Little Ice Age (LIA) period when glaciers were particularly large but began to retreat significantly. Observations of post-LIA glacier front positions showed a sharp decline after their maximum extent in about 1850 until the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries, when they began to grow and advance again. They were also forming a prominent moraine around 1920, which was, however, far behind the 1850 extent. Interestingly, climate time series of the post LIA period show a general long-term cooling of summer temperatures and several decades of precipitation deficit in the second half of the 19th century. Thus, the retreat forced by climate changes cannot be simply explained by increasing air temperatures, though calibrated glacier mass balance models are able to simulate this period quite well. Additional effects related to the albedo could be a source for a better understanding. From 1920 onward, the climate moved into a period of warm and high-sunshine summers, which peaked in the 1940s until 1950. Glaciers started again to melt strongly and related discharges of pro-glacial rivers were exceptionally high during this period as glaciers were still quite large and the available energy for melt from radiation was enhanced. With the shift of the Atlantic meridional overturning (AMO), which is an important driver of European climate, into a negative mode in the 1960s, the mass balances of Alpine glaciers experienced more and more positive mass balance years. This finally resulted in a period of advancing glaciers and the development of frontal moraines around 1980 for a large number of glaciers. Thereafter, from 1980 onward, Alpine glaciers moved into an era of continuous negative mass balances and particularly strong retreat. The anthropogenic forcing from greenhouse gases together with global brightening and the increase of anticyclonic weather types in summer moved the climate and thus the mass balances of glaciers into a state far away from equilibrium. Given available scenarios of future climate, this retreat will continue and, even under the optimistic RCP2.6 scenario, glaciers (as derived from model simulations for the future) will not return to an equilibrium mass balance before the end of the 21st century. According to a glacier inventory for the European Alps from Landsat Thematic Mapper scenes of 2003, published by Paul and coworkers in 2011, the total surface of all glaciers and ice patches in the European Alps in 2003 was 2,056 km² (50% in Switzerland, 19% in Italy, 18% in Austria, 13% in France, and <1% in Germany). Generally, the reaction of Alpine glaciers to climate perturbations is rather well understood. For the glaciers of the Alps, important processes of glacier changes are related to the surface energy balance during the ablation season when radiation is the primary source of energy for snow and ice melt. Other ablation processes, such as sublimation and internal and basal ablation, are small compared to surface melt. This specificity enables the use of simple temperature-based models to simulate the mass balance of glaciers sufficiently well. Besides atmospheric forcing of glacier mass balance, glacier flow (which is related to englacial temperature distribution) plays a role, in particular, for observed front position changes of glaciers. Glaciers are continuously adapting their size to the climate, which could work much faster for smaller glaciers compared to large valley glaciers of the Alps having a response time of about 100 years.
Climate of the Free Troposphere and Mountain Peaks
The free troposphere is the location of important weather and climate processes. Here, horizontal and vertical transport of energy, mass, and momentum take place, and it holds greenhouse gases, water vapor, and clouds. The free troposphere therefore plays an important role in global climate feedback processes. Mountains provide important ecosystem services for a large lowland population. Mountain ecosystems may react particularly strongly to climatic changes. This is because mountains intersect important environmental and geoecological boundaries such as the snow line and the tree line. In a changing climate, these boundaries may shift. Climate change thus affects mountain glaciers, water resources, and mountain ecosystems. Climates of mountains and of the free troposphere have attracted scientists of the enlightenment and have been studied scientifically at least since the 18th century. High-altitude observatories were installed in the late 19th century, and upper-air measurements were started soon afterwards. However, even in the early 21st century, the climate observing systems do not well cover mountain regions and specifically mountain peaks. The temperature of the free troposphere is dominated by horizontal and vertical transport of sensible and latent heat, condensation and release of latent heat, and radiation to space. Mountain peaks sometimes reach into the free troposphere, but at the same time also share characteristics of surface climate. They are strongly influenced by radiative processes of the surrounding surface, while during the day they are often within the atmospheric boundary layer. With respect to climate change, temperature trends are amplified in the tropical upper-troposphere relative to the surface due to latent heat release, while in the Arctic the surface warms faster than the free atmosphere due to strong inversions and due to feedback processes operating at the surface. Mountain peaks may see both types of amplification. Several processes have been suggested to cause an elevation dependent warming, the most important of which arguably is the snow-albedo feedback. Elevation dependent warming is also seen in model studies and in observations, although detecting this signal in observations turns out rather difficult outside the tropics due to high variability and sometimes low-data quality. The observed climatic changes are expected to continue into the future.
Elevation-Dependent Climate Change in the European Alps
Michael Kuhn and Marc Olefs
Elevation-dependent climate change has been observed in the European Alps in the context of global warming and as a consequence of Alpine orography. It is most obvious in elevation-dependent warming, conveniently defined as the linear regression of the time series of temperatures against elevation, and it reaches values of several tenths of a degree per 1,000 m elevation per decade. Observed changes in temperature have forced changes in atmospheric pressure, water vapor, cloud condensation, fluxes of infrared and solar radiation, snow cover, and evaporation, which have affected the Alpine surface energy and water balance in different ways at different elevations. At the same time, changes in atmospheric aerosol optical depth, in atmospheric circulation, and in the frequency of weather types have contributed to the observed elevation-dependent climate change in the European Alps. To a large extent, these observations have been reproduced by model simulations.
Future Climate Change in the European Alps
Andreas Gobiet and Sven Kotlarski
The analysis of state-of-the-art regional climate projections indicates a number of robust changes of the climate of the European Alps by the end of this century. Among these are a temperature increase in all seasons and at all elevations and a significant decrease in natural snow cover. Precipitation changes, however, are more subtle and subject to larger uncertainties. While annual precipitation sums are projected to remain rather constant until the end of the century, winter precipitation is projected to increase. Summer precipitation changes will most likely be negative, but increases are possible as well and are covered by the model uncertainty range. Precipitation extremes are expected to intensify in all seasons. The projected changes by the end of the century considerably depend on the greenhouse-gas scenario assumed, with the high-end RCP8.5 scenario being associated with the most prominent changes. Until the middle of the 21st century, however, it is projected that climate change in the Alpine area will only slightly depend on the specific emission scenario. These results indicate that harmful weather events in the Alpine area are likely to intensify in future. This particularly refers to extreme precipitation events, which can trigger flash floods and gravitational mass movements (debris flows, landslides) and lead to substantial damage. Convective precipitation extremes (thunderstorms) are additionally a threat to agriculture, forestry, and infrastructure, since they are often associated with strong wind gusts that cause windbreak in forests and with hail that causes damage in agriculture and infrastructure. Less spectacular but still very relevant is the effect of soil erosion on inclined arable land, caused by heavy precipitation. At the same time rising temperatures lead to longer vegetation periods, increased evapotranspiration, and subsequently to higher risk of droughts in the drier valleys of the Alps. Earlier snowmelt is expected to lead to a seasonal runoff shift in many catchments and the projected strong decrease of the natural snow cover will have an impact on tourism and, last but not least, on the cultural identity of many inhabitants of the Alpine area.
Securing High Levels of Sustainability in Transportation Under Future Climate Change
Christoph Matulla and Katharina Enigl
It is well known that global temperatures have risen by about 1°C since the second half of the 19th century and that the major part of global warming experienced since the mid-20th century is due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The transportation sector contributes approximately 30% of the GHG emissions released in the European Union (EU) and is a significant driver of climate change. Therefore, most discussions and initiatives regarding transportation have been geared toward mitigation (reducing GHG emissions). However, transportation is exposed to climate change impacts at the same time. Since climate change will continue to unfold in the coming decades, mitigation alone is not enough to provide protection, and adaptation efforts will also be needed. Extreme weather events, which are expected to occur more frequently and violently in the wake of climate change over the decades to come, pose a considerable challenge to the resilience, reliability, and safety of transportation systems. It has become obvious that these challenges cannot be met with mitigation (reduction of GHG emissions) alone but have to be addressed by suitable adaptation measures. Appropriate actions will help to reduce the risk of bad investments and damage to transport infrastructure, and their identification is not trivial because of the often long lifespan (many decades) of infrastructure and the uncertainty involved in forecasting the extent of climate change’s impacts over long periods of time. It is therefore crucial to incorporate into transportation planning the design of appropriate measures for adaptation to the impact of climate change. However, for some reason (so-called barriers to adaptation), adaptation has rarely been adopted by stakeholders. The barriers include, for example, insufficient understanding of climate-related hazards and the vulnerability of the transport system to them; the lack of appropriate procedures; the lack of perception of the urgency; the impression that there is no need for a forward-looking, proactive integration of adaptation strategies into transport planning; the perception that the uncertainties are too great for adaptation planning; and budget challenges. Results of a survey among stakeholders in transportation—conducted in order to establish land transportation as the World Meteorological Organization’s new Service Delivery Target—revealed that stakeholders’ reluctance to implement the design of adaptation strategies into transportation planning, which was quite pronounced only a few years ago, has given way to general acceptance. The transport sector has a dual role—on the one hand, as a major driver of climate change, and on the other hand, as a sector vulnerable to climate change impacts. The consequences of climate change for transportation and the strategies for dealing with them by mitigation and adaptation are paramount. Mitigation and adaptation complement each other in attaining optimal protection of transportation against climate change’s impacts. Finally, the implementation of appropriate adaptation strategies needs to support decision makers in the design of forward-looking strategies that enhance the sustainability of infrastructure. An example of such implementation has occurred in the complex terrain of the European Alps.
History and Importance of Mountain Observatories in Alpine Climate
Mountain observatories have played an important role in developing scientific research since the 18th century. These alpine observatories have been used by numerous scientists who have carried out a wide range of investigations, and have thus been able to establish significant meteorological findings. They were established to better understand atmospheric properties, such as dynamics, and are now used for climate and environmental science in addition to astronomy. The data measured at mountain observatories provide information on the climatic conditions of certain alpine regions and show that even more high-altitude stations are needed to better understand climatic and environmental changes in the 21st century.
Impacts of Climate Warming on Alpine Lakes
Martin T. Dokulil
Climate warming has impacted Alpine lakes at all altitudes. The European Alps are particularly affected because the mean temperature increment is twice as high as the global average. Depending on the reduction of greenhouse gases realized in the near future, by the end of the 21st century, Alpine lakes will have warmed above the current temperature by 2–6°C. Extreme weather situations such as heatwaves, droughts, heavy precipitation, and storms are expected to further increase, impacting Alpine regions and lakes worldwide. The expected increase in temperature and the associated impacts on almost all aspects of the ecosystem, together with increasing greenhouse gases and extreme climatic events, will negatively affect Alpine lakes throughout the world.
Health Problems in the European Alps Under Climate Change
Lisbeth Weitensfelder, Hans-Peter Hutter, Kathrin Lemmerer, Michael Poteser, Peter Wallner, and Hanns Moshammer
The Alpine region in Central Europe and its populations in principle face the same types of threats to their health due to climate change as those in other parts of the world. But special geographical and climatic aspects of that region warrant closer and special examination of the connections between health and climate change in the Alps. These include small-scale variation, in some instances steep mountain slopes, and, above all, a larger-than-average increase in near-surface temperatures. To that end, there are main pathways between climate change and health: “Direct effects” describe rather short-term health effects of extreme weather events. Such events have occurred in the past, and therefore ample epidemiological evidence is available for the assessment of their impact. With climate change, such extreme events are predicted to change in frequency and intensity. “Indirect effects” refer to a more complex pathway where long-term changes of various natural and anthropogenic systems in reaction or adaptation to climate change exert adverse or sometimes also beneficial impacts on health. Such systems include ecosystems in which, for example, the prevalence of disease vectors or the allergenicity of pollen will change. But agriculture and forestry or the built environment are also affected by climate change and in turn affect the health of people. “Distant effects” are also rather indirect in nature. But in this pathway, changes due to climate change in other parts of the world affect the health in the Alpine region. Increasing migration into the Alpine region and changing migration patterns are important examples of this pathway. In some instances, most importantly regarding mental health, there is still a need for more studies focusing on the Alpine environments. But apart from these especially understudied topics, as the climate crisis evolves, there is generally a need for continuous research on the health effects of climate change and the potential of health promotion to create co-benefits.
Opportunities and Drawbacks for Alpine Tourism Under Climate Change
Franz Prettenthaler and Christoph Neger
Alpine tourism both contributes to the generation of greenhouse gases and suffers the consequences of climate change. This has been apparent in many destinations since the late 20th century and will exacerbate further in the future. It will particularly affect the winter season, which relies heavily on snow-based activities. Since the early 21st century, these effects have largely been dealt with by the use of artificial snowmaking, which will remain an important tool for alpine tourism destinations, despite increasing efforts and costs. The effects of climate change will not be ubiquitous but, rather, will impact low-lying and less prepared resorts first, whereas those in higher elevations and with the necessary infrastructure might even benefit in the short term by shifts in tourist flows away from less attractive sites. Long term, however, climate change is a serious issue for all alpine winter sports destinations, particularly because customers might lose interest in winter activities. Regarding summer tourism, the future looks brighter, and many authors even expect an increase in tourism as other areas such as the Mediterranean become less attractive. Yet other researchers are skeptical of setting too high hopes in these projections because the situation is much more complex than assumed in many models and scenarios, considering for instance the distinct temperature preferences of visitors practicing different tourism activities. The uncertainties regarding the future of alpine tourism are even greater when climate policy, directed toward the mitigation of climate change, is taken into account as well. In this regard, to date there have been no significant impacts, but this might change under future, more extreme climatic conditions, which could lead to bolder policy actions. Moreover, consumers might change their travel preferences, favoring less carbon-intensive alternatives.
Plant Phenology of the European Alps
Phenology is the study of the seasonal timing of life cycle events. The Belgian botanist Charles Morren introduced the term in 1853, which is a combination of two Greek words, φαίνω, which means to show, to bring to light, make to appear, and λόγος, which means study, discourse, or reasoning. The global change discussion has stimulated phenological research, which as a consequence greatly advanced as science and evolved to one of the main climate impact indicators. Many of the earliest systematic efforts to collect phenological observations took place in countries sharing the Alps, most of which are still operating phenological networks. These phenological data sets are generally freely available to researchers, and numerous essential contributions to the topic of phenology and climate have been built on those data sets. Plant physiological processes underlying the ability of the plants to adapt to the year-to-year variability of the climate still constitutes largely a black box. Since the experiments of René Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur in the 18th century, it is known that temperature constitutes the main environmental driver of the seasonal development of the mid- to high-latitude plants. Second to temperature, day length governs the seasonal cycle of some species as an additional factor. Therefore, temperature-driven phenological models are able to simulate the year-to-year variability of phenological entry dates accurately enough for various applications, such as climate change impact research or numerical pollen forecast models, where the beginning of flowering of some plants is linked with the release of allergic pollen into the atmosphere. Large-scale circulation patterns, like the North Atlantic Oscillation, determine the frequency and intensity of warm and cold spells and decadal temperature trends over Europe. Combined anthropogenic and natural forcings explain the advance of spring phenology over the last 50 years, which is also clearly discernible in the area of the Alps. The early phenological spring starts in Western Europe, whereas later in the season it makes progress with a stronger southerly component across the Alps. The combined temporal and spatial trends have been studied along elevational gradients. Trends toward earlier entry dates are stronger at higher elevations, which indicates that the elevational phenological gradient has weakened since the mid-20th century. Similarly, the vegetation response to temperature is observed to decrease when moving from high to low latitudes. In contrast, the temporal response of plant phenology to increasing temperatures is less clear. Some works indeed demonstrate a decreasing temperature sensitivity with increasing temperature, which is explained as a result of a reduced winter chilling that delays spring phenology or of a limiting effect due to a shorter photoperiod. Other works report no change of temporal temperature sensitivity with increasing temperatures. Indigenous midlatitude vegetation is able to withstand large temperature variations during winter and spring. The safety margin between last frost events, budding, and leaf emergence was found to be uniform across elevations and taxa, except for beech trees. The probability of freezing damage to natural vegetation is almost nil, but late frost risk constitutes a real threat to fruit growers. The ratio of phenological and last frost trends is ambiguous. An increase or decrease in frost risk depends on regions, elevations, and species. Vegetation at high altitudes is exposed to a harsh climate with a long-lasting snow cover, low temperatures, and a short growing season. Snowmelt is a necessary but insufficient requirement for the start of the growing season, which has to be supplemented by plant-specific temperature sums to activate the growth of most alpine and subalpine species. The seasonal cycle has to be completed within a short time. Advances in remote sensing technology have provided access to high-resolution landscape scale phenological information. Especially in remote areas, like the Alps, in situ observations could be supplemented by satellite observations. Observations from both methods, I -situ and remote sensing, have been applied to describe spring vegetation dynamics, but the correlation between these data sets have typically been weak because of differences in temporal and spatial scales and resolutions. A successfully combined description of the seasonal vegetation cycle is still lacking. The area of the European Alps offers a wealth of long chronicles, containing historical phenological observations some of which have been extracted and digitized. Grape harvest dates belong to the most readily available historical phenological observations, which have helped reconstruct summer temperatures as far back as the 15th century.
Saharan Dust Records and Its Impact in the European Alps
Marion Greilinger and Anne Kasper-Giebl
Mineral dust is one of the main natural sources of atmospheric particulate matter, with the Sahara being one of the most important source regions for the occurrence and deposition of mineral dust in Europe. The occurrence of dust events in the European Alps is documented via measurements of airborne dust and its deposits onto the glaciers. Dust events occur mainly in spring, summer, and early autumn. Dust layers are investigated in ice cores spanning the last millennium as well as in annual snow packs. They strongly affect the overall flux of dust-related compounds (e.g., calcium and magnesium), provide an alkaline input to wet deposition chemistry, and change the microbial abundance and diversity of the snow pack. Still airborne mineral dust particles can act as ice nuclei and cloud condensation nuclei, influencing the formation of cloud droplets and hence cloud formation and precipitation. Dust deposits on the snow lead to a darkening of the surface, referred to as “surface albedo reduction,” which influences the timing of the snowmelt and reduces the annual mass balance of glaciers, showing a direct link to glacier retreat as observed presently in a warming climate.
The Future of Alpine Glaciers and Beyond
Wilfried Haeberli, Johannes Oerlemans, and Michael Zemp
Like many comparable mountain ranges at lower latitudes, the European Alps are increasingly losing their glaciers. Following roughly 10,000 years of limited climate and glacier variability, with a slight trend of increasing glacier sizes to Holocene maximum extents of the Little Ice Age, glaciers in the Alps started to generally retreat after 1850. Long-term observations with a monitoring network of unique density document this development. Strong acceleration of mass losses started to take place after 1980 as related to accelerating atmospheric temperature rise. Model calculations, using simple to high-complexity approaches and relating to individual glaciers as well as to large samples of glaciers, provide robust results concerning scenarios for the future: under the influence of greenhouse-gas forced global warming, glaciers in the Alps will largely disappear within the 21st century. Anticipating and modeling new landscapes and land-forming processes in de-glaciating areas is an emerging research field based on modeled glacier-bed topographies that are likely to become future surface topographies. Such analyses provide a knowledge basis to early planning of sustainable adaptation strategies, for example, concerning opportunities and risks related to the formation of glacial lakes in over-deepened parts of presently still ice-covered glacier beds.