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Article

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.

Article

Christophe Ancey

Avalanches have long been a natural threat to humans in mountainous areas. At the end of the Middle Ages, the population in Europe experienced significant growth, leading to an intensive exploitation of upper valleys. At almost the same time, Europe’s climate cooled down considerably and severe winters became more common. In the Alps, several villages were partly destroyed by avalanches, forcing inhabitants to develop the first mitigation strategies against the threat. By the late 19th century, the development of central administrations led to the creation of national forestry departments in each alpine country, principally to tackle the dangers posed by avalanches. As a result, forest engineers conceived not only the science of avalanches but also the first large-scale techniques to alleviate avalanche risks (such as reforestation). However, with the steady growth of transport, industry, tourism, and urbanization in high-altitude areas, these earlier measures soon reached their limits. A new impetus was then given to better forecasting avalanche activity and predicting the destructive potential of extreme avalanches. Avalanche zoning, snowfall forecasts, avalanche-dynamics models, and new protection systems for the protection of structures and inhabitants have become increasingly more common since World War II. With the advent of personal computers and the increasing sophistication of computational resources, it has become easier to predict the behavior of avalanches and protect threatened areas accordingly. The success of this research and the protection policies implemented since World War II are reflected in the drastic reduction in the number of disasters affecting dwellings in the Alps (most deaths by avalanche now occur during recreational activities). Significant progress has been made since the 1980s, leading to a better understanding of avalanche behavior and the mediation of associated risks. Yet we should not assume that this progress is steady or that our capacity to control such hazards is more advanced than it was two decades ago. Efforts to predict avalanches contrast with work in other sciences such as meteorology, for which forecasts have become increasingly more reliable with advancements in computational power. Explaining the difference is simple: in meteorology, the material is air, a substance whose behavior is well known. The main difficulty lies in the computation of enormous volumes of air encountering various flow and temperature conditions. For avalanches, the material is snow, a subtle mixture of water (in different forms) and air, whose behavior is remarkably complex. Modern models of avalanche dynamics are able to predict this behavior with varying degrees of success.

Article

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.

Article

Yongkang Xue, Yaoming Ma, and Qian Li

The Tibetan Plateau (TP) is the largest and highest plateau on Earth. Due to its elevation, it receives much more downward shortwave radiation than other areas, which results in very strong diurnal and seasonal changes of the surface energy components and other meteorological variables, such as surface temperature and the convective atmospheric boundary layer. With such unique land process conditions on a distinct geomorphic unit, the TP has been identified as having the strongest land/atmosphere interactions in the mid-latitudes. Three major TP land/atmosphere interaction issues are presented in this article: (1) Scientists have long been aware of the role of the TP in atmospheric circulation. The view that the TP’s thermal and dynamic forcing drives the Asian monsoon has been prevalent in the literature for decades. In addition to the TP’s topographic effect, diagnostic and modeling studies have shown that the TP provides a huge, elevated heat source to the middle troposphere, and that the sensible heat pump plays a major role in the regional climate and in the formation of the Asian monsoon. Recent modeling studies, however, suggest that the south and west slopes of the Himalayas produce a strong monsoon by insulating warm and moist tropical air from the cold and dry extratropics, so the TP heat source cannot be considered as a factor for driving the Indian monsoon. The climate models’ shortcomings have been speculated to cause the discrepancies/controversies in the modeling results in this aspect. (2) The TP snow cover and Asian monsoon relationship is considered as another hot topic in TP land/atmosphere interaction studies and was proposed as early as 1884. Using ground measurements and remote sensing data available since the 1970s, a number of studies have confirmed the empirical relationship between TP snow cover and the Asian monsoon, albeit sometimes with different signs. Sensitivity studies using numerical modeling have also demonstrated the effects of snow on the monsoon but were normally tested with specified extreme snow cover conditions. There are also controversies regarding the possible mechanisms through which snow affects the monsoon. Currently, snow is no longer a factor in the statistic prediction model for the Indian monsoon prediction in the Indian Meteorological Department. These controversial issues indicate the necessity of having measurements that are more comprehensive over the TP to better understand the nature of the TP land/atmosphere interactions and evaluate the model-produced results. (3) The TP is one of the major areas in China greatly affected by land degradation due to both natural processes and anthropogenic activities. Preliminary modeling studies have been conducted to assess its possible impact on climate and regional hydrology. Assessments using global and regional models with more realistic TP land degradation data are imperative. Due to high elevation and harsh climate conditions, measurements over the TP used to be sparse. Fortunately, since the 1990s, state-of-the-art observational long-term station networks in the TP and neighboring regions have been established. Four large field experiments since 1996, among many observational activities, are presented in this article. These experiments should greatly help further research on TP land/atmosphere interactions.