The European Alps are now among the increasing number of mountainous regions with reduced snowfall and warmer temperatures, according to a recent study in the December 2016 issue of Climate Change. The study documents a precipitous drop the amount of snow-covered days annually, during the recent decades of warming. The snow seasons of Swiss ski areas were found to start 12 days later and end 25 days earlier than in 1970, according to readings from 11 weather stations across the Swiss Alps, at elevations from 3,600 to 8,200 feet (1,100 to 2,500 meters). The research also found that the date of maximum annual snow depth is now 28 days earlier than in 1970.
The study was led by scientists from the Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, and the Swiss Institute for the Study of Snow and Avalanche Research.
Last month was the driest December in 100 years in the Swiss Alps as well as in parts of France and Italy. The region has warmed nearly twice as fast as the global average, with other Swiss scientists predicting the snow line to rise 500 to 700 feet by the end of the century, while the snow season will be another four to eight weeks shorter.
The new research also showed that high elevation areas were being affected by warming trends, after earlier studies had suggested the trend would be eclipsed by year to year changes at such elevations. Previous research has focused on lower elevations where warming was already evident.
Martine Rebetez, from the University of Neuchâtel, one of the researchers who worked on the study, said:
“For now, the higher elevations may still have good snow when lower elevations lack [it], but that’s not going to last for too long. Some resorts that are at higher elevations thought they would be safe for some time, but it’s changing pretty fast, and it’s connected to increasing temperatures. It shows that things are also changing at higher elevations, and it corresponds to the last quite strong period of temperature increases.”
Decreasing snowpack has been documented in other mountainous areas, such as the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades, in research by the United States Geological Survey.
According to Hans-Martin Füssel, an adaptation expert at the European Environment Agency, said:
“We’re already seeing impacts to winter tourism, with declines in regions closer to the snow line, where lifts are no longer operating.”
“Snow cover also plays an important role for ecosystems, as snow protects the ground from extreme cold,” said Füssel. “Plants have an easier time under snow cover, and if snow is melting refreezing and creating an ice layer, it makes it harder for plants and animals.