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Global warming forecast spells bad news for the Alps

Global warming is a growing threat to the Swiss Alps


A new report says the Swiss section of the Alps could be one of the regions worst-hit by global warming in the coming years. It says a rise in temperature could ruin winter sports and the environment.

The report by the Institute of Climate Studies and Geography at Berne University, says the Alps are extremely sensitive to any change in weather. In fact, it is estimated that a rise in temperature globally by between one and four degrees, will result in an increase of five degrees in the Alps.

The author, Professor Heinz Wanner, says the reasons for arriving at this conclusion are threefold: firstly, there is a long tradition in the Alps of climate observation, secondly the geographical situation of the Alps is unique and thirdly, the mountains themselves have a very complex structure.

All in all, he says, because the Alps are situated halfway between ocean and continent and between north and south, any climatic change is intensified within a relatively small region.

The study itself took eight years, and took into account the effects of what is known as the greenhouse effect. Professor Wanner says rather than being a far-off possibility the greenhouse effect could soon be reality.

"One effect we have to expect is the slow warming of the atmosphere, but besides this...we have short periods of a cooler, and then a warmer climate, and if we have a greenhouse effect and more energy in the atmosphere, these extremes are getting even more extreme."

Since 1992, the institute has been looking into various models, including the most extreme scenario in which the average temperature of the Swiss Alps could rise by five degrees over the next 50 years.

If this happens, Professor Wanner warns, there is a greater likelihood of melting glaciers, avalanches, and extreme rainfall, because higher temperatures lead to more water rising into the atmosphere.

This could be devastating for winter sports, as the level of snowfall will get higher. Professor Wanner says the effects on the environment could also be huge.

"We already have calculations or models looking at vegetation, for example trees. We can see that if we have such quick changes, where we have areas where forests exist today, they just won't exist in 50 years", he says, adding "forests are an important factor of stability for the slopes and hydrology."

However, he says it is impossible to know whether the effects of global warming are irreversible or not. What is certain, is that it is mankind that bears the responsibility for having the biggest influence on it, through for example the use of aerosoles and the burning of fossil fuels.

Unfortunately measures to try to slow down or halt the effects on the Swiss Alps will also have to be undertaken at a global level.

On Friday, the Swiss government is applying for World Heritage status for the Swiss Alps' largest glacier, the Aletsch, from UNESCO. It is hoped the resulting publicity will at least raise awareness of the importance of the Alps, and the threats they are facing.

by Jamsheda Ahmad

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