Mapping out the future of Alpine glaciers
The Alps, known as "Europe's water tower", is home to glaciers that supply Europe with 40% of its fresh water. It is the pristine alpine streams that supply rivers like the Rhine, Danube, Po, and Rhone with the water that makes transportation and irrigation in many parts of Europe possible. However, studies have shown that the rate at which alpine temperatures are increasing is more than twice the global average. How climate change will affect water resources in mountainous regions is the subject of a major European Union research project, called ACQWA, involving three dozen scientific partners from within and outside of Europe.
At an altitude of 3100 meters in the Aosta Valley in north-western Italy, a meteorological station is gathering data regarding snow and glacier dynamics. The network of automated weather stations that gather this data is run by the ARPA, the regional environmental protection agency. The data is sent in real time via mobile phone networks – GPRS and GSM – to local research and meteorological bureaus. It includes parameters like snow thickness, air temperature, solar radiation, wind conditions and surface temperature. These can be used to find what is known as the snow-water equivalent, which measures the supply of frozen water before it melts.
Recent research shows that over the next few decades the snow will begin melting earlier, bringing a higher risk of floods and avalanches in winter and spring. Using information from satellites and the data from ARPA, scientists at the regional "Functional center" of the Aosta Valley are creating a hydrological model in order to make early predictions of natural disasters.
The “Secure Mountain Foundation” is another participant of the ACQWA project. They have created a three-dimensional computer model of an unstable hanging glacier, from which large falling blocks of ice threaten the safety of locals and tourists. Since climbing the glacier would be far too dangerous, the researchers used close-range photogrammetry to create the model of the hanging glacier, whereby they took photos from different angles using a helicopter, which were reconstructed on a computer.
Asides from safety issues, climate change is also raising concerns in the economic, agricultural and energy sectors. Local economies will suffer greatly when the famous alpine ski resorts become too warm.
Switzerland receives 60% of its energy from hydropower stations. It is a clean and renewable energy source, but obviously one that relies on a stable water flow. The expected rise in water during spring and drop in water levels in July and August will most definitely lead to a need to rethink production at hydropower plants. Exactly how the running water in the mountains relates to the flow of electric current in domestic homes is under scientific examination.
According to Martin Beniston, ACQWA project coordinator, the best-case scenario by the end of the century will be a loss of 50% of the alpine glaciers, while the worst-case sees a loss of 90%. This will lead to a strain on all sectors, as water goes into shorter supply. The results of the international project are due for presentation by 2013. It is hoped that with sufficient knowledge, it will be easier to adapt in preparation for the future.