The European Alps are one of the most densely populated mountain chains in the world. The Southern Alps of Switzerland are a region in which rapid glacial loss is occurring with a variety of potential consequences for human health and sustainability. There are extensive human settlements and infrastructure that exist within the glacial regions of Switzerland and the melting of these glaciers will likely increase with a warming climate.
Glacial Retreat in the Alps
The European Alps have lost approximately 50% of their total glacial volume between 1850 and 1975, with an additional 35-40% of the remaining amount lost since 1975 (Haeberli et al. 2007).
In 2003, a record heat wave swept through Europe causing a mean glacial mass balance loss of 2.45 meters-water equivalent (m w.e.) in the European Alps. This was one of the most significant mass balance losses within the past 2,000 years (Haeberli et al. 2007).
Switzerland relies on hydroelectric power for 50% of its energy supply, and much of this is sourced from glacial meltwaters provided by the Swiss Alps (UNEP 2008).
A rise in temperature of 2 degrees Celsius would decrease the snow reliability of high-altitude ski resorts by over 20%, with even more drastic results for low-altitude resorts. This would be potentially disastrous to Switzerland's tourism-dependent economy (Koenig et al. 1997).
Rising global temperatures are causing rates of glacial melting and thinning to accelerate. An evaluation of 19 glaciers within the Swiss Alps revealed a total ice volume loss of 3.5 square kilometers from 1980 to 2007 (Haeberli et al. 2007).
Changing weather patterns are resulting in warmer winters and lower snow accumulation. The North Atlantic Oscillation is a highly variable climatic phenomenon which is a major controlling factor of temperature, snow cover, and snow duration in the Swiss Alps (Beniston 2003).
Natural hazards are a prominent issue due to the large population within the Alps, and settlements are at risk of floods, avalanches, and landslides related to glacial melting and retreat.
Glacially-supplied water resources are vital for energy, agriculture, and other human uses in Switzerland. Disruptions in the normal volume of water that is supplied could occur if meltwaters begin to fluctuate outside their normal ranges.
Shifting snowfall elevation ranges may render lower-lying ski areas unusable, leading to increased usage of higher-elevation ski areas. This will result in an increased anthropogenic impact on glaciated mountain areas
Financial losses may occur as a result of decreased tourism and recreation within Switzerland's service economy sector if ski tourism begins to falter due to unpredictable weather. As of 1997, one-third of Switzerland's economy was based on tourism, with approximately 300,000 jobs at stake (Koening et al. 1997).
Potential hazards must be continuously monitored and accounted for to prevent any catastrophic damage to human life and property.Preventive measures should also be considered to avoid catastrophic events such as the glacial lake outburst flood in Valais and ice avalanche in Grindwald, both of which occurred due to a lack of mitigation strategies (Huggel et al. 2004).
Water resources must be secured, and conservation measures should be implemented to prepare for potential disruptions in meltwater flows.
The diversification of economic activities beyond ski tourism is a potential avenue for reducing potential impacts related to climate change.The towns of Arosa and Gstaad are examples of resort centers that have experienced success with hosting music and theatre festivals as alternative attractions.
Bauder, Funk, and Huss A., et al. 2007 . Ice-volume changes of selected glaciers in the Swiss Alps since the end of the 19th century. Annals of Glaciology 46: 145-149.
Beniston, M. 2003. Climatic Change in Mountain Regions: A Review of Possible Impacts. Climatic Change 59: 5-31.
Haeberli, W., et al. 2007. Integrated monitoring of mountain glaciers as key indicators of global climate change: the European Alps. Annals of Glaciology 46: 150-160.
Huggel, C., et al. 2004. An assessment procedure for glacial hazards in the Swiss Alps. Canadian Geotechnical Journal 41: 1068-1083.
Koenig and Abegg, U., et al. 1997. Impacts of Climate Change on Winter Tourism in the Swiss Alps. Journal of Sustainable Tourism 5: 46-58.