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.