Skiing in Zermatt, Switzerland this past winter it was obvious that snow levels were decreasing at an unusual rate.

The Matterhorn, as seen from Zermatt, Switzerland, March 2009. Skiing in Zermatt, Switzerland this past winter it was obvious that snow levels were decreasing at an unusual rate, as discussed in the Convention report.

A major publication from the EU’s Convention on the Protection of the Alps last week, revealed the dramatic effects of climate change on the Alps region.

The Convention on the Protection of the Alps was established in 1991 and is headquartered out of Bolzano, Italy. The Convention report published on 17 June 2009 is its second magisterial report. It reveals that the northern ranges of the Alps are suffering serious flooding while southern ranges are generally seeing huge reductions in snow fall. Average Precipitation levels have decreased 10 % in the south-east of the region.

Marco Onida, secretary general of the Convention, recognizes that “the European climate is dividing in two…the result will be havoc for the Alps and the communities and wildlife that rely on the area.” The Alps’ most famous peaks, such as Mont Blanc, The Matterhorn, and Monte Rosa, mark the division between the wet north and Italy and Slovenia in the dryer south of the region.

The current analysis of changes to be made to the Swiss-Italian border is a prime example of such geo-political changes driven by climate change. The Italian military has been tracking changes as glaciers on the border melt over the last thirty years. Italian Brig. General, Carlo Colella (Florence) suggests that in some places the border could change up to 100 m. It is also believed that Italy will gain territory as the glaciers in the Southern Alps are melting at a faster rate.

The border in question was last changed in 1861 when Italy became a unified state. Now the Italian government is involved in changing their national legislation to allow such a border change; Switzerland requires no such change to law. Colella acknowledges that “after the border change with Switzerland, the Italian-French border will come under consideration.”

Outside of creating complex border issues, climate change in the Alps has begun to have profound implications for agriculture and tourism. Northern villages already face flooding and water shortages and decreased snowfall in the south have already started to hit the tourism industry. Additionally, Alpine species are being driven further up the mountains; thus, exotic and invasive plant species are starting to take hold lower down in the Alpine system.

The Convention report points to the environmental burden, especially with regards to expediting climate change, from the increased demand for artificial snow by the tourism industry. This is a necessary step in order to sustain the winter sports industry, which is the economic mainstay of the area. But it is a catch-22 scenario, under which generation of artificial snow further burdens already stressed water and energy supplies.

Ultimately, changing patterns of rain and snowfall, shrinking glaciers, and raising temperatures are seen by the Convention report as the greatest challenges to Alpine villages. The Convention report cites Italy’s 178 mile-long Tagliamento (in the northeast of the country) as the only Alpine river to not suffer drastic modifications to date. Dr. Onida said that “the Alps are the water tower of Europe, but much of the water is no longer reaching the places downstream where it is actually needed for ecosystem [stability], agriculture, and energy [generation].” He does acknowledge the very real struggle between agriculture and tourism for scarce water supplies.

Only time will tell how national borders will change and whether climate change will lead to intense battles between tourism and the survival of Alpine villages. The eight Alpine countries – France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Slovenia, and Hungary – are taking action through the Alpine Convention. There may be time and the means to manage and mitigate some of the most extreme effects of climate change in the Alps.

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