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.
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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