Italy's Famed Lake Como Records Lowest-Ever Water Levels

Retreating shores and loss of biodiversity due to climate change are impacting one of Europe’s most beloved natural wonders.

Varenna on shore of Lake Como, Lombardy, Italy

Roberto Moiola / Sysaworld / Getty Images

Even if you’ve yet to gaze upon the natural beauty of Italy’s Lake Como, there’s no doubt you’ve likely seen it as a supporting character on the silver screen. From as early as 1925 (“The Pleasure Garden”) to more contemporary blockbusters (“Casino Royale”, “Ocean’s Twelve”, “Star Wars: Episode II”), filmmakers, much like the centuries of tourists before them, have been drawn to Como’s stunning scenic wonders. 

Like other lakes around the world, however, Como is facing an uncertain future due to climate change. Of particular concern this year has been the lake’s regressing shorelines, dropping more than three feet (or 4.6 billion gallons) from normal water levels. As ​​CBS News correspondent Chris Livesay discovered in interviews with local geologists, the rapidly-shrinking Fellaria glacier that feeds Lake Como is the largest contributing factor to its record-low water levels.

“With global warming, there's hardly any glacier left,” geologist Michele Comi told Livesay, noting that Fellaria has lost nearly two-thirds of its total mass since the 1880s. "The glacier when I was a baby was very big," he added. "Now, where is the glacier?"

A future of limited glacial runoff

The eastern Fellaria glacier.
The eastern Fellaria glacier. Matteo Marelli / Getty Images

While Lake Como, Europe’s fifth deepest lake at over 1,300 feet deep, is in no danger of drying up in the future, there are consequences to losing its most consistent water source. According to a recent paper on the impact of climate change on the Como’s future hydrology, average temperature increases of between 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit (.61 degrees Celcius) and 10.73 degrees Fahrenheit (5.96 degrees Celcius) could result in a decrease in total ice volume in the catchment by −50% to −77%. This loss would be particularly hard-felt during the months when reliance on the lake’s resources is at its highest. 

“Our results, even within the range of the well known uncertainty when dealing with future climatic, and hydrologic scenarios, indicate consistently the expectation of an increase in flows during the wet (flood) seasons, winter and especially fall, and subsequent decrease during the dry (drought) seasons, spring, and especially summer, as due to shifted snow cycle, and decreased ice cover,” the researchers conclude.

The loss of the Fellaria glacier will place new stresses on everything from the hydropower reservoirs located upstream of the lake to the irrigated farms located downstream. As Livesay discovered, the area around Como, as well as the biodiversity of life it hosts, is also at risk. 

"The fish level is about 50% less than 10 years ago," William Cavadini, head of the local fishing association, told CBS News. "We already lost the Alborella. It was a small fish — was very famous in Como. Now it is completely disappeared."

Other species, such as the Agone (favorably described as a “freshwater sardine”), have lost numbers due to receding waters exposing egg clutches. Such losses have spurred officials to establish two fish nurseries for at-risk species with the hope of curbing the losses in the future. 

Lake Como, Italy
Bo Zaunders / Getty Images

Roads and terraced walls, some of which have bordered the lake’s edge for centuries, are also at risk of fracturing and collapsing due to the lower water levels. 

"These walls were constructed with the expectation of constant pressure from the lake’s waters corresponding to the contrasting pressure outwards from the terraced land,” explains the site Como Companion. “That balance does not exist when the water level is low and so the whole aesthetic fabric of the lakeside is under threat due to the changing need to deploy structures more designed for tidal seafronts."

As Comi added to CBS News, the problem is a global issue that will require careful management to help preserve one of Europe’s most precious natural attractions. 

"The problem starts in the mountain, then in the lake, then in the plains," he said. “In climate change, nothing is local, everything is global."

View Article Sources
  1. Fuso, Flavia, et al. "Future Hydrology of the Cryospheric Driven Lake Como Catchment in Italy Under Climate Change Scenarios." Climate, vol. 9, no. 1, 2021, p. 8., doi:10.3390/cli9010008