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Shrinking Alpine glaciers will impact Europe's water resources

  • Shrinking Alpine glaciers will impact Europe's water resources

Switzerland’s Alpine glaciers are disappearing, and the consequences may be felt throughout Europe. The melting is not something new, as the volume of Alpine glaciers has decreased by more than half in less than one hundred years, but this year’s hot summer has accelerated this pace, reports the BBC.

Communities across the Alps are concerned as they watch the landscape changing. Glacier retreat endangers lives and threatens the local economy, as they support ski resorts, climbers and hikers. Last July 11 people died after a glacier collapsed on the Marmolada peak in Italy.

Worldwide, mountain glaciers are retreating due to climate change, a decline projected to continue throughout the 21st century. However, in regions like the European Alps, with mostly small glaciers and relatively little ice cover, glaciers are projected to lose more than 80% of their current mass by 2100 under a high emissions worst case scenario, and many will disappear regardless of the emission scenario, according to a 2019 IPCC report.

In some glacier-fed rivers, summer and annual runoff have increased due to intensified glacier melt, then subsequently decreased as glacier area shrinks. Decreases were observed especially in regions dominated by small glaciers, such as the European Alps. Nevertheless, in all world regions, average annual runoff from glaciers is expected to reach a peak that will be followed by declining runoff at the latest by the end of the 21st century.

The temperature in Switzerland is now more than 2ºC higher than in the pre-industrial area, double the global average increase, according to SWI swissinfo.ch. The 1,500 glaciers on Swiss territory are considered crucial reservoirs of drinking water. As they melt, Switzerland will lose a major water reserve, which is estimated in 57km3, or 15% of Swiss water reserves (the remaining being mainly in natural lakes and groundwater), enough water for the country’s population for 60 years.

Switzerland will continue to have enough water even accounting for population growth. The Alps will continue to receive a lot of precipitation, but in the form of rain instead of snow, so the country will have to find different ways to manage its water resources. In the future, experts foresee competing interests between major water users: the agricultural sector and hydropower plants.

60% of Switzerland’s power supply comes from hydropower, the second highest percentage in Europe after Norway. It has been suggested that as they shrink, glaciers are freeing up areas to build new multipurpose reservoirs, offering opportunities for hydropower production and irrigation. A downside is that many are nature areas of national importance, or listed by UNESCO.

But glaciers are also essential to Europe’s water resources. In regions located hundreds of kilometres from the Alps, the flow of large rivers, – the Rhône, Rhine, Danube and Po – could decrease significantly in the summer months as the contribution of meltwater decreases. As the “water towers” of Europe, glaciers store snow in the winter and release it as meltwater over the summer, feeding Europe’s rivers. Decreasing river flows are expected to affect the agricultural sector, power production, and transport on Europe’s main waterways. Low river flows in the Rhine affected freight in Germany this past summer. Meanwhile, nuclear power plants in France and Switzerland had to decrease production because of limited availability of water for cooling.

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