The iconic snow-capped Alpine peaks may be a thing of the past for future generations if average global temperatures keep rising unchecked, a new study warns.
The study, in the journal The Cryosphere, posits that, by 2100, the Alps will be "mostly ice-free" if greenhouse gas emissions increase rapidly over the next few decades. The findings were presented at the General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna on April 9th.
"The results of the study are alarming and sad, but unfortunately quite realistic," says Markus Stoffel, an expert on climate change impacts at the University of Geneva. "They are based on state-of-the-art glacier models and the latest generation of regional climate models."
Even under moderate warming, Alpine glaciers would shed two-thirds of their present mass by the end of the century. "The losses are not only the result of future climate change but also the consequence of the warming that we are living through since the start of industrialization and—more drastically—since the 1980s," Stoffel says.
The Alps straddle eight European countries and attract millions of tourists every year, occupying a central place in European culture. But the mountain range also provides drinking water and irrigation water for lowland Europe, and supports hydroelectricity generation.
To determine how the Alpine glaciers will respond to warming, the researchers used a dynamical ice flow computer model that captured not just melt processes but also ice flow processes, which previous estimates did not explicitly take into account.
Their results concur with earlier estimates for glacial mass loss, according to experts, and confirmed another dismaying conclusion: The Alps would lose about half of their glacial mass by 2050 even without any additional warming. This will happen because significant increases in average temperatures are expected in the second half of the century and because glaciers respond slowly to a changing climate.
"The glacier response time is related to the fact that glaciers are, at this moment, 'too big' for the climate they are located in," says Harry Zekollari, now at the Delft University of Technology, Netherlands, and a co-author of the paper. "In other words: they reflect earlier climatic conditions."
While they are a vital source of water supply and hydroelectricity, the Alps also provide fresh water that supports ecosystems. "The melting of glaciers will alter runoff, and thereby influence water availability downstream of glaciers," Stoffel says. "Also, warmer temperatures and smaller glacier water contributions will affect water temperatures, with consequences on aquatic ecosystems and invertebrates."
River life, and riverside habitats that are important for birds, may be the first to be affected. The loss of Alpine glaciers is likely to have cascading effects on the wider ecosystems and other flora and fauna, but these effects are not yet fully understood.
"What is noteworthy is that warming in the Alps has almost been twice as much as in lowlands," Stoffel says, "and consequences might be worse in Alpine environments than elsewhere."
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