Home Sciences Climate change: the Alps stop being white and turn green

Climate change: the Alps stop being white and turn green


The Alps are changing colour. every time there is less snow and more green. The high temperatures during spring and summer have caused the characteristic white mantle that shelters it during the cold winters to lose volume in the last four decades. Instead, small and large green shoots make their way that already occupy 77% of the space of the mountains above the forest edge. Although the landscape change that the area is experiencing may be pleasing to the eye, the reality is that these rapid and profound changes will have consequences on biodiversity, the terrestrial albedo and the availability of a resource as fundamental to life as water. .

What is happening in the Alps is what scientists know as ‘greening’. In other words, the high mountain area now has the right conditions for many more plants to grow there than in the past. This phenomenon, described by a Swiss research group, is related to rising temperatures and is already occurring in other parts of the world, such as the Arctic.

As the researchers explain in an article published in the journal ‘Science’, climate change is the cause of this snow variation. Scientists have been able to verify this change in landscape through the use of satellite images from four decades ago and today. “Climate change is already visible even from space”say the scientists.

To this is added that the area has reduced its snow cover by almost 10%, which has to do with a change in the way in which precipitation occurs in the mountains, now more abundant in rain than in snow. “Although projections show that precipitation is going to increase in the Alps, mountain areas are warming so fast that they are reducing the proportion of precipitation that falls as snow,” they explain. In fact, there are already forecasts that in 20 or 30 years, the reduction in snow mass will reach at least 25%.

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More plants is not always beneficial

This is directly related to the increase in high mountain vegetation, since the growth of plants generates a vicious circle that does nothing to preserve the white layer that covers the mountain range. And it is that, the greener the soils of this mountain range, the more easily it exchanges heat with the atmosphere. A circumstance that ultimately alters snowfall patterns, causing the snow to melt faster and reducing coverage.

“Both the growth of plants and the loss of snow cover have consequences on the climate,” he adds. Scientists do not rule out that the increase in the green mantle could mitigate climate change in some way -given the increase in plant production-, but it is very possible that on balance, its contribution to the fight against global warming is minimal. And it is that, compared to other biomes, the vegetation that grows in the mountains does not function as large carbon sinks, as it does with more luxuriant forests.

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For this reason, the damage to these ecosystems is likely to be much greater than the benefits, as indicated by scientists. Climate change will cause high mountain flora to undergo profound changes in both its composition and its functions, which will affect the life forms that depend on it. “It could generate large-scale structural changes throughout the European Alps”they review in the article.

The change has already begun

Snow loss, meanwhile, can have negative repercussions on the Earth’s albedo (amount of light reflected from a surface), as well as the economy, recreation and drinking water supply. First, the decrease in white cover will cause a change in the Earth’s albedo, since the mountains will no longer reflect part of the sun’s rays back into the atmosphere.

Instead, the Alps will become heat sinks, leading, in turn, to an increase in temperatures in the area. This problem could grow even more if the permafrost thaws, since it could release greenhouse gases, as well as generate landslides or large landslides in the mountains.

On the other hand, “glaciers and snow provide half of the world’s water resources”, highlight the researchers, who insist that this progressive loss of snow will join other problems, such as drought, which will deepen the problems to supply water to the societies of the future.

Reference study: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abn6697


Environment section contact: crisisclimatica@prensaiberica.es

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