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You are here: Home / News / Europeans hit by melting snow and ice

Europeans hit by melting snow and ice

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The United Nations Environment Programme's global outlook for ice and snow report, released today, shows how Europeans will be hit by a reduction in ice and snow both on the continent and in remote regions like the Arctic.

The snow line is expected to creep upwards by 150 meters in the Alps for every degree C the temperature rises. A three degrees rise in summer could lead to a loss of about 80 % of the alpine glaciers. Snow and glaciers are important for the availability of water, especially in summer when the water retained gradually melts. Reduced run-off will reduce water supplies for Europeans living in catchment areas of, for example, the Alps or the Pyrenees and affect agriculture, industry and power generation.

Winter tourism generates huge amounts of revenue for Europe's economy. For example, it makes up 4.5 % of Austria's GDP. As most ski resorts rely on stable snow conditions, they are likely to be hit by higher winter temperatures.

Melting of snow and ice in remote areas like the Arctic will also affect Europe. As the white surfaces are replaced by darker ones, more heat from the sun will be absorbed. Also, there is more organic carbon and methane stored in the Arctic permafrost than in the atmosphere. Consequently, thawing of the permafrost will release these greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Thus, the effects in the Arctic will accelerate global warming.

Lower lying regions may be severely affected by the rise in the sea level. In European coastal zones, we find 16 % of the continent's inhabitants and 280 cities with more than 50 000 people. Sea level now rises 3 mm/year and is projected to continue to rise due to past emissions of greenhouse gases. However, the long-term effect of the melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica remains largely uncertain. If emissions continue to grow, the melting of these ice sheets could lead to the sea level rising by metres over the next centuries, even with only a partial melt down.

The EU has proposed to limit the global warming to two degrees over pre-industrial time to avoid such adverse effects. This will require substantial reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases. However, some effects are unavoidable. Therefore, adaptation measures are needed in vulnerable sectors and regions. The EU Commission will publish a Green Paper on adaptation to climate change in July this year.

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