Friday, December 08, 2006

Global Warming Melts the Alps.

In a previous posting, "Smoking Gun Found for Atmospheric CO2" I pledged my conversion to the belief that climate change is happening. This was a result of having visited the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland, where I noticed the visible lack of glacial coverage on the Jungfraujoch plateau especially, and more generally on the mountains of that region, including the Jungfraujoch, the Eiger and the Monch. These names are usually taken to mean respectively "the virgin " (young woman?), "the ogre" and "the monk" and provide three dominating peaks over the landscape of this part of central Switzerland. Having visited and worked in Switzerland regularly over the past twenty or so years, the frugality of ice really struck me, and that even in the past few years it is clear that something spectacular has happened to the climate there. In my own direct experience, this is the clearest manifestation of the truth of global warming I have witnessed.
I now read that the phenomenon is a general feature of the Alps, which now display a distinct lack of snow and ice. Wider issues of global warming set aside for a moment, this is very bad news for the skiing industry. In consequence, Alpine resorts across Europe are postponing the start of the season in the hope that more snow will yet fall in this, the warmest winter in 1,300 years, and are shipping in machines to produce tons of artificial snow to cover their flanks. It takes significant amounts of energy to run them, which seems to me as a microcosm of the difficulties that will yet be encountered in keeping regions of a warmer world colder by artificial means. One might be tempted to leave the car at home and walk today, in a fit of moral pique that it is all our fault this is happening, but I caution (while taking neither side) that there is evidence presented in a recent book (as noted in my posting "Global Warming Caused by Natural 1,500 Year Cycle") to the effect that the Earth is in a warming trend as a result of natural causes. Whether we are layering an additional burden onto this from our profligate greenhouse gas emissions (probably) and worse, that the full heating effects of our CO2 legacy are yet to kick in, remain at present in the realms of speculation.
So what indeed did become of the Alpine winter sports wonderland? According to the accepted norm, it is the snow falling in the autumn which sets down the foundations and this is frozen into place by the ensuing winter frigidity. This year has seen a definite lack of both snow and cold. Last year was a "proper" winter right across the Alps, which gladdened older hearts of a return to the weather of their youth, but this year has seen a grim return of the more recent trend, where the permafrost line creeps higher and higher year on year. According to a recent study of trends, within 20 years skiing in Italy below 2,000 m may be impossible, because of steadily rising winter temperatures and declining snowfall. That would mean that the sites of some of the most famous resorts such as Bormio (where last year's World Skiing Championship was held) and the very glitzy Cortina d'Ampezzo, which have their lowest slopes at around 1,220 m will be redundant: very bad for business!
The still calm of winter nights in many skiing locations are punctuated by the boom of snow-cannons, which fire millions of droplets of water into freezing air to create snow on increasing numbers of pistes around the Alps are no final solution to the problem. Installing these machines requires a capital outlay of 140,000 Euros for each hectare region to be covered by snow, and a further cost of up to 5 Euros for each square metre of snow that they produce. Their electricity consumption is prodigious, at 3.5 kwh per cubic meter of snow, formed from around 2.5 cubic metres of liquid water, another essential resource. One may immediately deduce that snow occupies a much greater volume than liquid water, and that it has a density of 1/2.5 = 0.4 tonnes per cubic meter. This indeed is true, if the snow is slightly compressed - freshly fallen snow has a density of only around 0.1 tonnes per cubic metre, meaning that 90% of fresh snow is actually "air"!
In addition to the financial costs of resources, it is a fact that the snow machines only work if the temperature is at least 4 degrees C below freezing. Hence those already installed have a potentially limited lifetime if predictions are true that winter temperatures in the Val d'Aosta region will increase by about 2 degrees C by 2050. Mmm, the whole world is predicted to be quite a bit hotter by then, though by how much exactly remains to be seen, and predictions from computer models vary substantially among them. Playing "Devil's Advocate" for a moment, I wonder what the situation will be if the North Atlantic Thermohaline circulation (Atlantic Conveyor) has slowed enough that northern Europe is by then getting to grips with the fingertips of the next ice-age?
We shall await the outcome of global warming (which is predicted either to cook-on to some unknown heat or suddenly - perhaps over is little as 10 - 20 years - snap into the next ice-age), hoping the consequences are not too catastrophic for our descendants and I hope sensibly preparing for what changes may come. Meanwhile, skiing resorts in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Austria are severely lacking in snow, an observation history may record as one of the early and tell-tale signs that the climate was indeed changing, while pondering what, if anything was done to prepare for the consequences of this.

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