National and regional story (Italy) - The vulnerability of the Alps to climate change - Climate change and impacts - Future threats - The need to adapt
Climate change: impacts and adaptation in the Alps
The vulnerability of the Alps to climate change - Climate change and impacts - Future threats - The need to adapt
ITALY: Domenico Gaudioso, Francesca Giordano, Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA); Umberto Morra di Cella, Edoardo Cremonese, Paolo Pogliotti, Regional Agency for Environmental Protection (ARPA Valle d’Aosta); Silvia Giulietti, Ministry for the Environment, Land and Sea (MATTM); Luca Cetara, Accademia Europea di Bolzano (EURAC)
AUSTRIA: Andrea Prutsch, Martin Kralik, Sabine Mc Callum, Wolfgang Lexer, Martin König, Jochen Bürgel, Florian Wolf-Ott, Johannes Mayer, Environment Agency Austria
FRANCE: Jacques Thorette, Ministry of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and Sea (CGDD/SOeS); Floriane Macian, Alpine Ecosystems Research Center (CREA), Jean-Jacques Brun, Research for sustainable land and water management (CEMAGREF)
SLOVENIA: Tanja Cegnar, Jelko Urbančič, Environmental Agency of the Republic of Slovenia (EA)
LIECHTENSTEIN: Hermann Schmuck, Office for Forest, Nature and Landscape (AWLN); Kaspar Papritz, Dr. Bernasconi AG
GERMANY: Christina Pykonen, Inke Schauser, Federal Environment Agency (UBA); Thomas Probst, Alpine Research Institute GmbH
SWITZERLAND: Nicolas Perritaz, Brigitte Reutter, Roland Hohmann, David Volken, Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN)
The Alps are one of the world’s most important mountain ecosystems. They have a formative influence on all forms of life in this region since its specific topography causes different climatic and meteorological conditions representing unique living spaces on the variety of its elevations: approximately 200 000 km2 are, in fact, the home of great natural diversity and abundant endemic species. Furthermore, besides being represented as an exceptional mixture of natural and cultural elements, the Alpine region is the living space for about 14 million inhabitants and comprises the territory of eight countries (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia, and Switzerland). Located in the heart of continental Europe, the Alps play a crucial role as a water reserve, thus delivering, also to downstream areas throughout Europe, vital ecosystem services and supporting important social and economic activities such as farming, forestry, hydroelectric power production, and the prosperous tourism. Agriculture is practiced all over the Alps, but it is mainly concentrated in the foothills and valleys.
In terms of average per-capita GDP, wide disparities between and within the regions of the Alpine countries are found. However, in every country of the Alpine region, except Italy and Slovenia, the national average per-capita GDP is higher than the average percapita GDP in the region. Last but not least, the culture and way of life of its population are to a great extent shaped by its alpine character.
The region also represents one of the most vulnerable areas to climate change in Europe.
Over the past century, the Alps have been affected by a very high temperature increase of almost +2 °C (EEA, 2009), more than twice the rate of average warming recorded in the northern hemisphere. Furthermore, a wetting trend in the north alpine region and a drying trend in the south have been observed.
Even if (theoretically) emissions of greenhouse gases stop today, these changes would continue for many decades. Therefore, in addition to emission reduction measures, it is essential that natural and human systems develop adequate adaptive responses in order to reduce and manage risks but also to take advantage of the opportunities resulting from climate change.
The effects of global warming in the Alps are particularly evident in the shrinkage of glaciers and in reduced snow-cover extent and duration. Since 1850, glaciers in the European Alps have lost approximately two-thirds of their volume and half of their surface (EEA, 2008). Furthermore, upward shift of the snowline, upward migration of Alpine species, warming and melting permafrost as well as changes in run-off regime of rivers and decrease in water resources availability already show that many ecosystems and their services are being affected by regional climate changes (see box - Italy).
In the coming decades, global change will alter the hydrological cycle of the Alps, probably leading to more droughts in summer, especially in the southern Alps, and more floods and landslides in winter, especially in the northern Alps. This will also affect the amount of water that the water towers of Europe can provide to millions of people in lowland areas and the economic sectors relying on water such as agriculture, hydropower production, industry, winter tourism, river navigation (EEA, 2009). Global warming could accelerate the reduction in snow cover at low altitudes as well as the melting of glaciers and permafrost at higher altitudes thus increasing the hydro-geological risks in the mountain areas (see box – Germany and box – Liechtenstein). Future water shortages, combined with increasing water demand for agriculture and tourism (Fuhrer, J. & Jasper, K., 2009), are likely to have severe effects on ecosystem services, by affecting, for example, soil fertility, water availability and increasing risk of forest fire (see box – Switzerland).
Furthermore, the loss of biodiversity due to climate change will be further exacerbated as the rate of change might exceed the ability of many species to adapt or to migrate vertically (see results of GLORIA project, http://www.gloria.ac.at/).
In the Alpine countries, the feasibility of measures to adapt to the impacts of climate change depends especially on the social and management factors, e.g. the people involved and cooperative structures. Political and legal frameworks as well as economic incentives are important to support the adaptation process (EEA, 2009). On one hand biodiversity conservation and natural hazards management are among the main priorities in the Alpine natural environment (see box – France).
On the other hand, related to the anthropogenic environment, adaptation strategies and measures in the Alps should cope with challenges related to climate change-sensitive economic sectors, such as agriculture and forestry, tourism, energy, water management, and other sectors highly relevant to sustainable territorial development (box – Slovenia and box - Austria).
In some sectors such as winter tourism, which contributes significantly to the Alpine economy with an annual turnover of 50 billion euro, adaptation has already been put into practice especially by means of technology, such as artificial snow-making, movement to higher altitudes and north facing slopes, glacier skiing, and behavioural solutions, such as operational practices, financial tools and new business models.
However, it must be realised that highly resource-consuming measures, such as artificial snow-making, can counteract mitigation efforts and may be environmentally unsustainable and maladaptive. Also, adaptation has a cost, as well as limits, and the need for a more appropriate economic assessment of the adaptation options (and their costs) is now crucial in order to ensure cost-effective and proportionate measures.
Climate change is increasingly seen as one of the greatest policy issues in the Alpine region. With its integrated approach, the implementation of the Alpine Convention (see box – Alpine Convention) has paved the way for a sustainable development of the Alps, calling for an integrated, cooperative and transboundary approach to environmental, social and economic issues. The Alpine Convention responded to the challenge of climate change with the release of the Climate Action Plan at the 10th Alpine Conference in Evian in 2009, containing recommendations for activities in the field of mitigation and adaptation. The plan includes 80 concrete measures in nine key sectors. It should go beyond the national and international framework and promote actions specific for the Alps. The plan aims to make the Alps an exemplary territory for prevention of and adaptation to climate change.
To this purpose, the Alpine countries actively cooperate and participate with their own institutions in achieving the goals of the Convention through the implementation of research and cooperation projects in the different fields (including tourism, permafrost layer degradation, spatial planning, mountain forests, natural hazards, etc.) which are to a large extent co-financed by the EU territorial cooperation Alpine Space Programme (see box - Alpine Space Programme).
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Alpine Convention, 2009. Report on the State of the Alps. Alpine Signals – Special Edition 2, Water and water management issues. Permanent Secretariat of the Alpine Convention, Innsbruck.
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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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