Severe prognosis for alpine region as climate records show decline in snow below 2000m
Kim Willsher published an article in the Observer last weekend, which reports on current climate research by meteorologists in Chamonix.
In short, climate records show that increasing temperatures are having visible effects on the alpine landscape below 1000 metres. Accumulations of snow below this altitude have decreased by 40% in the last fifty years. These trends are expected to continue with long term climate change. As Willsher acknowledges, Chamonix is lucky in that many of its ski resorts operate at higher altitude, where the effects will not be so acutely felt, but this is not true of all resorts in the Alps.
Additionally, scientists are monitoring the changes to high altitude glaciers in the area and there is clear evidence of glacial retreat: the Mer de Glace has lost 65m of depth in the last 20 years and 300m in length since 1996. When I was trekking along the Mer de Glace last July, I was surprised to hear that the glacier was considered the largest in the Western Alps. It was a thin, mere film strip of ice coated by rubble deposits from the adjacent slopes.
The top image shows my view from the Mer de Glace railway station at 1913m. In the bottom picture, I was hopping over crevasses on the dry glacier surface with two guys from Flight of the Frenchies.
For climate scientists, glacial retreat is a simple, physical change to the environment that reflects a fluctuation in climate. It's easily observed, and it's easily understood by the public. This helps to explain the recent success of Chasing Ice - a documentary film I saw in Leeds - about the attempts of photographer James Balog to capture glacier retreat in the Artic Circle, using time lapse photography. The film combines his personal story with images depicting the beauty, scale and ultimately the fragility of ice masses during climate change.
It does make me question the morality of using an energy-intensive, artificial indoor ice wall when the ice out there is melting around us (see Ice Ice Baby). But hey, maybe we'll need more indoor ice climbing centres in fifty years time when the world is a few degrees hotter... ?!
Just as the causes of this global issue are bound up in human activity, so the effects for the Chamonix Valley are inextricably linked to people. There are obvious socio-economic impacts for tourism in the area, as the quality and availability of snow depreciates. Willsher makes reference to this in her article.
So, here's another story telling me that the effects of climate change are distributed unequally. Some regions in the world may experience increasing precipitation levels, but for the Alps it seems to be thaw all the way. Read more by the IPCC for clarification on this. Certainly, meteorologists suggest there's a difference between low and high altitude slopes, so it'll be interesting to see how localised the impacts really are.
For climbers and mountaineers, it brings a stark message that we can't hide from this by jetting to the Bernese Alps or sailing to Greenland. We're in it together. Climate change is having a detrimental impact on the mountain playground within our lifetimes.