Wednesday, December 20, 2006

No Snow for Santa!

The climate of Northern Europe is distinguished by its lack of winter weather this year, and although midwinter's day has fallen, very little snow has, and spring seems to have already flown to blossom on the roof of Europe. I commented previously on the lack of snow that we noticed on holiday in Switzerland back in August, which appears to be a general feature of the whole of Europe, with knock-on effects for the tourist industry. What are the Alps without snow on them, all said and done?! What is not done without snow, certainly, is skiing and holiday-makers arriving to play their annual medicine of winter sports are being greeted by lush green meadows, on which sheep graze contentedly, not crunchy white virgin pistes. Hotels throughout the Alps remain underbooked, to a loss reckoned by the Italian Hoteliers' Association of £400 million this year so far - and that's just in Italy.
Every spring since 1818, the city of Geneva's official chestnut tree has been watched as a harbinger of Alpine spring, for when it puts out its first bud, by a specially appointed official (sounds like a typical local authority!) who solemnly records the date on a special noticeboard in the town hall (definitely!). There have been two previous "tree" post-holders (how many "human" ones is anyone's guess) and the event usually falls in March, though occasionally it has arrived prematurely in February. This year the tree burst into bloom in late October, and remains to sport flowers and leaves, thereby by-passing winter. Two weeks ago, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that the Alps are especially sensitive to global warming, and in recent years have warmed up by about three times as much as the world as a whole, and that still greater changes can be expected in the coming decades, with less snow at lower altitudes, and receding glaciers and melting permafrost higher up.
The organisation has made a two year study which concluded that 609 from the present 666 (a symbolic number, if there ever was!) medium to large Alpine ski resorts have sufficient snow cover for 100 days a year at the moment, but this number could decrease to a mere 200 if temperatures rise by four degrees centigrade. However, that is the worst case scenario, and does seem an almost outlandish increase. Interestingly, it is Germany that would be worst affected, where a one degree rise - which the "experts" say could happen by 2020... hmmm - would lead to a 60 per cent fall in the number of resorts with snow (more of them at relatively low altitudes, presumably). It is not just the "surface" mountain coverage that is at issue, because ice glues together huge masses of rock which have started to detach from mountains like the Eiger, and entire cliff faces have disintegrated. Smart Swiss-bankers are now refusing to lend money to ski resorts located at altitudes below 4,500 feet.
In Moscow too it is unusually warm at 9 degrees C, rather than the more usual "minus four", and bears in Moscow Zoo show no wish to hibernate. In Sweden, the gingerbread houses that families traditionally make for Christmas are collapsing as the damp, warm weather melts the icing used to stick them together. "The problem is the mild winter," according to Aake Matteson of Anna's, the country's leading gingerbread wholesaler. In Britain, Prince Charles has said that climate change is the "biggest threat to mankind", which is the point made by the government's Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Sir David King, earlier in the year, in agreement with Professor James Lovelock (of Gaia fame), in support of a need for a new generation of nuclear power stations. The Prince has called on governments across the world to act before it is too late. Some think it already is, while others believe that the current global warming is part of a natural 1,500 year cycle, related to the power output of the sun.
In reference to the 53 Commonwealth countries, Charles ("Sir" to me) said that they needed to improve levels of sustainable development. Now he is onto something there, whatever is the cause of global warming. Ultimately, we will have to live and provide energy to do so in a sustainable way; in an eventual "powerdown" strategy that will require a paradigm shift in our relentless pursuit of "more". We still have plenty, but need to use the resources "better" - more efficiently through a combination of technology and some frugality, though less than adopting an entirely agrarian society, as yet. We still need our prevailing technology to develop sustainable methods, holding a programmed and steady course to the self-renewing destination that must be the future.

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