Published (reviewed and quality assured)
Justification for indicator selectionPermafrost is permanently frozen ground and consists of rock or soil that has remained at or below 0 °C continuously for more than two years. Mountain permafrost is the dominating permafrost in Europe, because Arctic permafrost is found in Europe only in the northernmost parts of Scandinavia. Permafrost is abundant at high elevations in mid-latitude mountains, where the annual mean temperature is below - 3 °C. It contains variable amounts of ice and exists in different forms: in steep bedrock, in rock glaciers, in debris deposited by glaciers and in vegetated soil. Because vegetation and circulating groundwater in mountain permafrost areas are mostly absent, the temperature in the deeper rock material is largely determined by the temperature history at its surface. Mountain permafrost therefore contains valuable information on climate change. Temperature profiles from alpine boreholes are difficult to interpret in terms of past trends due to the effects of the complex topography (Figure 1) and the availability of insulating snow-cover (Gruber et al., 2004a). Nevertheless, monitoring of temperature change at depth provides valuable data on the thermal response of permafrost to climate change.
Permafrost influences the evolution of mountain landscapes and affects human infrastructure and safety. Permafrost warming or thaw affects the potential for natural hazards, such as rock falls (e.g. at the Matterhorn in summer 2003) and debris flows (Noetzli et al., 2003; Gruber and Haeberli, 2007). At least four large events involving rock volumes of more than 1 million m3 have occurred in the Alps during the past decade. Their effects on infrastructure have motivated the development of technical solutions to improve design lifetime and safety (Philips et al., 2007).
- References Gruber, S. and Haeberli, W., 2007. Permafrost in steep bedrock slopes and its temperature-related destabilization following climate change. Journal of Geophysical Research 112, p. F02S18. Gruber, S.; King, L.; Kohl, T.; Herz, T.; Haeberli, W. and Hoelzle, M., 2004a. Interpretation of geothermal profiles perturbed by topography: the Alpine permafrost boreholes at Stockhorn Plateau, Switzerland. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 15 (4): 349-357. Harris, C.; Vonder Mühll, D.; Isaksen, K.; Haeberli, W.; Sollid, J. L.; King, L.; Holmlund, P.; Dramis, F.; Guglielmin, M. and Palacios, D., 2003. Warming permafrost in European mountains. Global and Planetary Change 39: 215-225. Isaksen, K.; Sollid, J. L.; Holmlund, P. and Harris C., 2007. Recent warming of mountain permafrost in Svalbard and Scandinavia. Journal of Geophysical Research 112, F02S04. Noetzli, J.; Hoelzle, M. and Haeberli, W., 2003. Mountain permafrost and recent Alpine rock-fall events: a GIS-based approach to determine critical factors. In: Phillips, M., Springman, S.M. and L.U. Arenson (eds). 8th International Conference on Permafrost, 20-25 July 2003, Zurich, Lisse. A. A. Balkema Publishers, the Netherlands. PERMOS, 2007. Permafrost in Switzerland 2002/2003 and 2003/2004. Glaciological Report (Permafrost) 4(5) of the Glaciological Commission of the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SAS) and Department of Geography, University of Zurich. Phillips, M.; Ladner, F.; Müller, M.; Sambeth, U.; Sorg, J. and Teysseire, P., 2007. Monitoring and reconstruction of a chairlift midway station in creeping permafrost terrain, Grächen, Swiss Alps. Cold Regions Science and Technology 47: 32-42. Vonder Mühll, D.; Noetzli, J.; Makowski, K. and Delaloye, R., 2007. Permafrost in Switzerland 2002/2003 and 2003/2004. Glaciological Report (Permafrost) No. 4/5 of the Cryospheric Commission (CC) of the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) and Department of Geography, University of Zurich. 106 pp.
- Temperature measured in different boreholes in mountain permafrost in Switzerland 1987-2007
Policy context and targets
In April 2009 the European Commission presented a White Paper on the framework for adaptation policies and measures to reduce the European Union's vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. The aim is to increase the resilience to climate change of health, property and the productive functions of land, inter alia by improving the management of water resources and ecosystems. More knowledge is needed on climate impact and vulnerability but a considerable amount of information and research already exists which can be shared better through a proposed Clearing House Mechanism. The White Paper stresses the need to mainstream adaptation into existing and new EU policies. A number of Member States have already taken action and several have prepared national adaptation plans. The EU is also developing actions to enhance and finance adaptation in developing countries as part of a new post-2012 global climate agreement expected in Copenhagen (Dec. 2009). For more information see: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/climat/adaptation/index_en.htm
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Key policy question
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EEA Contact InfoHans-Martin Füssel
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A – What is happening to the environment and to humans?)