The Alps provide 40 percent of Europe's fresh water. Photo by rKistian via Flickr.
Picturesque views of the snow-covered Alps may soon be relegated to picture books due to increasing climate change, a new European environmental report says. And it's not just skiers and tourism officials who are getting nervous about the fate of the continent's famous mountains.Temperatures in the Alps are increasing at a rate more than twice the global average, according to a recent report by the European Environment Agency, "Regional climate change and adaptation: The Alps facing the challenge of changing water resources." The change has serious ramifications not only for the alpine climate itself, but also for the broad swath of Europe that relies on the water these "cherished but endangered mountains" collect and deliver.
Europe's Water Supply Threatened
As the changing global climate affects precipitation and snow-cover patterns in the Alps, it also impacts the amount of water these "water towers of Europe" can provide to millions of people in lowland areas. The vulnerable region is home to most of the headwaters of major rivers, including the Danube, Rhine, Po, and Rhone, and its glaciers provide 40 percent of Europe's fresh water.
The EEA predicts "more droughts in summer, floods and landslides in winter, and higher inter-annual variability" in water availability that will lead to more shortages for--and competition between--households, agriculture, tourism, and other industries and interests. The River Lavant valley in Austria, which has a low level of precipitation and a limited number of springs, has already been affected by water shortages during hot summers, the EEA writes. And even regions like the Valais in Switzerland, which has seen few water-related conflicts of interest to date, are expected to suffer from diminished glacial melt water. In addition, the report says, 60 percent of mountain plant species may face extinction by 2100.
Plant Species at Risk
The Alps, which traverse Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, and Switzerland, host at least 4,500 plant species, more than a third of the flora recorded in Europe, including ferns, conifers, and flowering plants and almost 400 endemic species. According to the EEA, "the tree line is projected to shift upward by several hundred meters... restrict[ing] the alpine zone to higher elevations, severely threatening the alpine flora." Cold-water fish species including greyling, brown trout, perch, and Danube salmon are also already showing signs of stress from warmer water temperatures.
In addition to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees celsius, as will be negotiated at the upcoming UNFCCC climate change conference in Copenhagen, the EEA report calls on both the public and private sector to better share and conserve water resources in the region, such as by improving irrigation techniques, harvesting rainwater, and re-using wastewater and greywater.
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