- Snow cover in the northern hemisphere has fallen by 1.3 % per decade during the past 40 years. The largest losses are during spring and summer.
- Model simulations project widespread reductions in the extent and duration of snow cover in Europe over the 21st century.
- Changes in snow cover affect the Earth's surface reflectivity, river discharge, vegetation, agriculture and animal husbandry, tourism, snow sports, transport and power generation.
Northern hemisphere snow-cover extent variation 1966-2005
Note: The figure shows the snow-cover extent variation 1966 - 2005
Brodzik, M. J.; Armstrong, R. I.; Weatherhead, E. C.; Savoie, M. H.; Knowles, W. K. and Robinson, D. A., 2006. Regional trend analysis of satellite derived snow extent and global temperature anomalies, American Geophysical Union, Fall 2006. San Francisco, USA
Observed change in spring snow-cover duration 1970-2004
Note: The map shows the observed change in spring snow-cover duration 1970 to 2004 covering the Northern Hemisphere
Annual number of days with snow cover over European land areas 1961-1990 and projected change for 2071-2100
Note: Note: Results are based on seven regional climate-model simulations.
Jylhä, K.; Fronzek, S.; Tuomenvirta, H.; Carter, T. R. and Ruosteenoja, K., 2007. Changes in frost and snow in Europe and Baltic sea ice by the end of the 21st century. Climatic Change, DOI 10.1007/s10584-007-9310-z
Data from satellite monitoring (NESDIS-database at NOAA) from 1966 to 2005 show that monthly snow-cover extent in the northern hemisphere is decreasing by 1.3 % per decade (Figure 1), with the strongest retreat in spring and summer (UNEP, 2007). Snow cover fell in all months except November and December, with the most significant decrease during May to August (Brodzik et al., 2006). This was accompanied by lower springtime water content, earlier disappearance of continuous snow cover in spring (Figure 2) by almost two weeks in the 1972-2000 period (Dye, 2002), less frequent frost days (days with minimum temperature below 0 oC) and shorter frost seasons (period of consecutive frost days).
The trends in duration and depth of northern hemispheric snow cover at higher latitudes differ between regions. In contrast to a reduced duration of snow cover over North America, a long-term increase in depth and duration has been observed over most of northern Eurasia (Kitaev et al., 2005).
Snow-cover trends in the mountain regions of Europe vary considerably with region and altitude. Recent declines in snow cover have been documented in the mountains of Switzerland (e.g. Scherrer et al., 2004), Slovakia (Vojtek et al., 2003), and in the Spanish ski-resorts in the Sierra Nevada and the Pyrenees (Rodriguez et al., 2005), but no change was observed in Bulgaria over the period 1931-2000 (Petkova et al., 2004). Declines, when observed, were largest at lower elevations, and Scherrer et al. (2004) statistically attributed the declines in the Swiss Alps to warming. Lowland areas of central Europe are characterised by recent reductions in annual snow-cover duration of about 1 day/year (Falarz, 2002). At Abisko in sub-Arctic Sweden, increases in snow depth have been recorded since 1913 (Kohler et al., 2006), and trends towards greater maximum snow depth but shorter snow season have been noted in Finland (Hyvarinen, 2003).
Model simulations project widespread reductions in snow cover over the 21st century (IPCC, 2007a). Decreases of between 9 and 17 % in the annual mean northern hemisphere snow cover by the end of 21st century are projected by individual models (ACIA, 2004). Although winter precipitation is projected to increase in northern and central Europe (Christensen and Christensen, 2007), less frequent frost occurrences associated with higher temperatures are projected to reduce the number of days with snow cover (Figure 3). Decreases of more than 60 snow-cover days are projected to occur (for the period 2071-2100 compared with 1961-1990) around the northern Baltic Sea, on the west slopes of the Scandinavian mountains and in the Alps (Jylha et al., 2007). The beginning of the snow accumulation season is projected to be later and the end earlier, and snow coverage during the snow season is projected to decrease (Hosaka et al., 2005).
For every 1 oC increase in average winter temperature, the snowline in the European Alps rises by about 150 metres (Beniston, 2003). Regional climate model runs, following the SRES emission scenarios A1B, B1 and A2, project milder winters with more precipitation in this region, increasingly falling as rain (Jacob et al., 2007). A recently-published study on the sensitivity of the Alpine snow cover to temperature by Hantel and Hirtl-Wielke (2007) reported a distinctive and strong variation of snow-cover sensitivity to temperature change with altitude. The study estimated that a 1 oC increase in temperature over central Europe (5-25oE and 42.5-52.5oN) would result in a reduction of about 30 days in snow duration (snow cover of at least 5 cm) in winter at the height of maximum sensitivity (about 700 m).
Snowfall in lower mountain areas is likely to become increasingly unpredictable and unreliable over the coming decades (Elsasser and Burki, 2002), with consequences for natural snow reliability and therefore difficulties in attracting tourists and winter sports enthusiasts (OECD, 2007).
Indicator specification and metadata
- Northern hemisphere snow-cover extent variation 1966-2005
- Observed change in spring snow-cover duration 1970-2004
- Annual number of days with snow cover over European land areas 1961-1990 and projected change for 2071-2100
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
No targets have been specified
Related policy documents
No related policy documents have been specified
Methodology for indicator calculation
Methodology for gap filling
No methodology references available.
Data sets uncertainty
No uncertainty has been specified
Snow-Covered Area (SCA)
provided by National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC)
Climate change (Primary topic)
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
- CLIM 008
Contacts and ownership
EEA Contact InfoHans-Martin Füssel
EEA Management Plan2008 2.3.1 (note: EEA internal system)
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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