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Mountain permafrost (CLIM 011) - Assessment published Sep 2008

Indicator Assessment Created 21 Jul 2008 Published 08 Sep 2008 Last modified 11 Sep 2012, 04:50 PM
Topics: ,

Update planned for November 2012

Key messages

  • A warming of mountain permafrost in Europe of 0.5-1.0 oC was observed during the past 10-20 years.
  • Present and projected atmospheric warming will likely lead to wide-spread thaw of mountain permafrost.
  • Warming and melting of permafrost is expected to contribute to increasing the destabilization of mountain rock-walls, the frequency of rock falls, debris flow activity and geotechnical and maintenance problems in high-mountain infrastructure.


Temperature measured in different boreholes in mountain permafrost in Switzerland 1987-2007

Note: Note: Measured at ca

Data source:

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

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Temperature distribution within a mountain range containing permafrost

Note: Note: Permafrost is present in the blue area bordered by a black line.

Data source:

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

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Past trends

Data from a north-south transect of boreholes, 100 m or more deep, extending from Svalbard to the Alps (European PACE-project) indicate a long-term regional warming of permafrost of 0.5-1.0 oC during the recent decade (Harris et al., 2003). In Scandinavia and Svalbard, monitoring over 5-7 years shows warming down to 60 m depth and current warming rates at the permafrost  surface of 0.04-0.07 oC/year (Isaksen et al., 2007). In Switzerland, a warming trend and increased active-layer depths were observed in 2003, but results varied strongly between borehole locations due to variations in snow cover and ground properties (PERMOS, 2007). At the Murtel-Corvatsch (rock-glacier) borehole in the Swiss Alps, the only long-term data record (20 years), permafrost temperatures in 2001, 2003 and 2004 were only slightly below - 1 oC (Figure 1) and were, apart from 1993 and 1994, the highest since measurements began in 1987 (Vonder Muhll et al., 2007). Such data measured at rock-glaciers are difficult to interpret because the sub-surface thermodynamics in ice-rich frozen debris is rather complex. Complementary and clearer signals on thawing permafrost are expected from boreholes drilled directly into bedrock (e.g. Schilthorn, M. Barba Peider; Figure. 2). Corresponding monitoring programmes, such as PACE and PERMOS, however, only started less than a decade ago.


No specific projections on the behaviour of mountain permafrost are yet available, but changes in mountain permafrost are likely to continue in the near future and the majority of permafrost bodies will experience warming and/or melting. According to recent model calculations based on the regional climate model REMO and following the IPCC SRES-Scenarios A1B, A2 and B1, a warming of up to 4 oC by 2100 is projected for the Alpine region (Jacob et al., 2007). Further rises in temperature and melting permafrost could increasingly destabilise mountain walls and increase the frequency of rock falls, posing problems to mountain infrastructure and communities (Gruber et al., 2004a). The warming and thaw of bedrock permafrost can sometimes be rapid and failure along ice-filled joints can occur even at temperatures below 0 oC (Davies et al., 2001). Water flowing along linear structures and the advection of heat along joint systems will further accelerate destabilisation (Gruber and Haeberli, 2007).

Indicator specification and metadata

Indicator definition

  • Temperature measured in different boreholes in mountain permafrost in Switzerland 1987-2007


Policy context and targets

Context description

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:


No targets have been specified

Related policy documents

No related policy documents have been specified


Methodology for indicator calculation

Methodology for gap filling

Methodology references

No methodology references available.


Methodology uncertainty

Data sets uncertainty

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Data sources

Generic metadata


Climate change Climate change (Primary topic)

climate change | permafrost | mountains
DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CLIM 011
Geographic coverage:

Contacts and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Hans-Martin Füssel


EEA Management Plan

2008 0.0.0 (note: EEA internal system)


European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100