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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.


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.