National and regional story (Slovenia) - The Slovenian Alps tomorrow – extreme weather events and disappearing glaciers

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A pronounced temperature rise is expected in the warm half of the year, with a decrease in precipitation during summer and increase during the cold half of the year.
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Environmental Agency of the Republic of Slovenia
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03 Jan 2011
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Environmental Agency of the Republic of Slovenia
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Climate change is endangering the Alpine region more than the rest of Europe.

Climate projections based on historical data and numerical models

Compared to the period 1961–1990, summers towards the end of the century will get warmer by 3.5 °C to 8 °C, and winter warming is expected in a range from 3.5 °C to 7 °C, spring from 2.5 °C to 6 °C, and autumn from 2.5 °C to 5 °C. In spring and autumn months, no significant change in precipitation is expected. In winter, an increase is expected up to 30 %, while during summer, precipitation will decrease by 20 % (Bergant, 2007). Less precipitation and higher temperatures will result in drought conditions in Alpine valleys, which was not the case in the past. We are still more concerned about heavy precipitation rather than drought in the Alpine region.

Source: Bergant, K. 2007. Projekcije podnebnih sprememb za Slovenijo [V: Jurc, M. (ur.). Podnebne spremembe: vpliv na gozd in gozdarstvo], Studia forestalia Slovenica, 130, 67-86.

Protected natural areas

Triglav National Park (TNP) is the only Slovenian national park. It extends along the Italian border and close to the Austrian border in northwestern Slovenia, that is, in the southeastern section of the Alps. Its territory is nearly identical with that occupied by the Eastern Julian Alps. The park covers 880 square kilometres, or 3 % of the territory of Slovenia. Triglav National Park is among the earliest European parks. The first protection of this park dates back to 1924 when the Alpine Conservation Park was founded. The principal task of the Triglav National Park Public Institution is protection of the park, but it also carries out specialist and research tasks.

The park's landscape features are characterised by young folded ranges of the Eastern Julian Alps, diverse relief forms with pointed summits, steep rock faces and deeply-carved glacier valleys. Average temperatures in the warmest month range from 20 °C in the valleys to 5.6 °C in the mountains, and in the coldest month between 0.7 °C and -8.8 °C. Average annual precipitation exceeds 1500 mm, reaching up to 3500 mm.

Forest covers two-thirds of the park's territory; the predominant tree species on the south side of the park is beech, whereas spruces and larches are characteristic of the northern side of the park.

Subterranean waters, karst springs, water sources and glacier lakes are invaluable TNP assets. The mountain ridges between the Sava and the Soča rivers mark the watershed between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

There are 25 settlements in the park, accounting for 2352 inhabitants. Among the prevailing activities in the park are: agriculture with a pastoral economy, craft (wood and wool products), ecofarming and tourism. Tourism seems to be the most prosperous activity in this region.

The Alpine region and tourism

The tourism industry's heavy reliance on the local environment to sell holidays means that it could face serious challenges as a result of climate change. The mountains exhibit a great range of climatic conditions, with virtually every Alpine valley having a unique local climate. Tourism in the Upper Soča and Upper Sava valleys represents the most important economic activity. On average, there are 1.6 million visitors per year to Triglav National Park alone. Tourism is therefore important to the economy in the Alps, but in recent decades, winter tourism has endured several consecutive years of losses.

During winter, skiing is the dominant sport activity in the region. Expecting a temperature rise, there will be a considerable shortening of the snow season as well as reduced snowfall. Lower-lying resorts have already had to diversify into other holiday activities. Mount Kanin is one of the highest ski resorts in Slovenia and, with a connection to the ski resorts on the Italian part, represents one of the Slovenian ski resorts which are expected to suffer less because of climate change. In the Upper Sava Valley there are famous ski resorts where some of the most well-known world cups in ski jumping and downhill skiing take place. These ski resorts are situated at a relatively low altitude and could be compromised by changing climate in the not too distant future. Of course, artificial snowmaking could help, but it implies higher operating costs.

The Alps are not only one of the primary winter holiday destinations for skiers, they are also a popular destination for summer walking holidays. Rafting and other activities on the Soča River are dominant. Hiking and alpine climbing are also very popular and attract many tourists in this region. Climate change is expected to extend the season for such activities more towards the shoulder season, and in this respect climate change is expected to have positive effects on summer tourism not only due to the longer season but also due to the fact that more people will come in search of a more temperate summer climate in this mountain region instead of going to the seashore or other tourist resorts in the lowlands where temperature conditions during summer are often oppressive. More tourists and a longer tourist season could increase water consumption and other pressures on the environment in this region.

Hydropower plants

There are already two accumulation basins on the Soča River built as part of two hydropower plants and a third is under construction, which could potentially be used for tourism. It would have to be investigated if they could also serve as water reservoirs for a more sustainable water supply in the downstream parts of the river basin. Of course, there is a potential conflict of interest between nature protection and new water reservoirs.

Lakes, small rivers and streams

There are several Alpine lakes, many of which are quite small and therefore very susceptible to any change in climate. They also immediately react to any form of pollution. The resulting changes in water level could have an adverse impact on the local tourist industry. A decrease in water level coupled with higher temperatures may result in greater concentrations of pollution, including algal blooms, which could discourage water sports. Small rivers and streams are also vulnerable and this could have an impact on sports fishing.

Adaptation strategies

The mountain environment is sensitive to climate change. As for many alpine areas, winter tourism is the most important income source, the financial viability of winter tourism thus depends on sufficient snow conditions. The lack of snow at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s left a lasting imprint on the tourism industry. Snow-deficient winters and shortened skiing seasons result in less earnings in ski tourism. Despite global warming, it is impossible to exclude the possibility of winters with heavy snowfall in the future. Climate change must be viewed as a catalyst that potentially reinforces and accelerates structural changes in tourism. Today, adaptation strategies are predominant in tourism (e.g. artificial snow production, although it is considered to be unsustainable). Such strategies include maintenance of ski tourism (artificial snowmaking, extending skiing paths towards higher altitudes, ski slope design, cooperation), and alternatives to ski tourism, such as non-snow-related activities in winter and all-year tourism. No national adaptation strategy has yet been adopted.

Generally, milder conditions, especially in the winter and shoulder months, could attract more people to the uplands for hill-walking, creating opportunities and threats for agriculture and nature conservation. Mountaineering may provide partial compensation for reduced skiing opportunities, but there will be a greater risk of snow avalanches in the warmer conditions. Mountain areas are vulnerable to landslides, infrastructure becomes unstable, and hiking and climbing are more dangerous due to increasing rockfall. In the future, the climate will change its pattern. More frequent precipitation or a higher fog level could lead to new conditions in summer tourism in mountain areas (hiking, trekking, biking), and more frequent and more intensive extreme events could threaten tourism activities and infrastructure. Climate change also jeopardises mountain agriculture, and consequently farm tourism. Initiatives to develop organic farming and open such farms to tourists seem to be the way forward.

Increased risks for the tourism industry, individual travellers and the environment are expected at tourist destinations, but even now various trends are forcing the tourist industry to develop and adapt constantly. If tourism is not responsibly planned, managed and monitored, it can lead to negative cultural and social impacts. Mass tourism potentially constitutes an enormous burden on the environment.


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