By Luigi Jorio
This content was published on December 4, 2018
Over 40°C in the cities, long periods of drought and little snow in winter: in forty years’ time, Switzerland might look like one of the Mediterranean countries today. What effect would this have on society, tourism in the Alps, and the environment?
“Today the mercury hit 45 degrees in Geneva. The Swiss Plateau and the Alpine valleys had their twentieth day of tropical weather since the year started. The heatwave gripping the south side of the Alps and Valais for the past month will continue on into the coming weeks. Due to the ongoing drought, people are being asked to keep water consumption to a minimum.”
By the year 2060, it could be the typical national weather forecast on a summer’s day. This is based on new climate scenarios for Switzerland devised by MeteoSwiss, the federal department of meteorology and climatology, and the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ), published in mid-November. “Switzerland will be a hotter and a drier place,” summarised Peter Binder, the head of MeteoSwiss.
Change in average summer temperature in Switzerland compared to 1981-2010. The trend without climate protection measures is red, the forecasts with immediate emission reduction measures are blue.(swissinfo.ch)
To get an idea of the kind of climate likely in Switzerland in the second half of the current century, it is enough to look at what happened this year, says Christoph Schär, a climatologist at the Zurich-based institution. “The 2018 heatwave was a warning for the future. The extremes we are seeing at the present time could become the norm by 2060.”
From Alpine glaciers to life in the major cities, swissinfo.ch takes a look at the likely effects of global warming – assuming that appeals for a drastic reduction of emissions continue fall on deaf ears.
Since 1850 the 1,500 or so Swiss glaciers have lost 60% of their volume. In the hot summer of 2018 alone, the loss amounted to 2.5%. Because of rising temperatures and less snow in the springtime, smaller glaciers are doomed, says Matthias Huss, a glaciologist at ETH. According to the federal environment ministry, only the ones in the highest parts of the Bernese Alps and Valais will survive, such as the Aletsch glacier.
The shrinking mass of the ice, as well as having an adverse effect on the landscape and on the stability of mountainsides, will also have repercussions on the water supply system. Based on current knowledge from climate scenarios of 2011, Olivier Overney, who heads the Hydrology division of the federal environment ministry, says that “climate change will mean important changes to water resources at the local level.” The new climate scenarios need to be combined with the hydrological models to yield more precise data, he adds.
The retreat of the glaciers will make a major difference to Europe’s great rivers which rise in the Swiss Alps. According to predictions, the volume of the Rhone could be down 40% in the coming years.
In future there will still be winters with heavy snow. They will just happen less frequently. People who want to ski at the high-altitude ski resorts like Zermatt or St Moritz will have to expect 30-60% less snow cover than today. Ski resorts at around 1,500 metres will lose about 100 days of snow.
In Adelboden, at 1,350 metres, there will be less snow days than there are now in the capital city of Berne (542 metres), say forecasters from the Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research and the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.
For some time now, tourist resorts have been offering summer and autumn aimed at reducing their dependence on winter tourism, says Bruno Galliker, a spokesman for the industry association of ski-lift operators. In Switzerland, however, he is at pains to point out, winter sports are not on the way out. “In the coming decades it will still be possible to ski in Switzerland, especially using man-made snow. Switzerland has a competitive advantage over neighbouring countries, because the skiing areas are at higher altitudes.”
According to Galliker, climate change could even have a silver lining for Alpine tourism. “Fascinating new landscapes will appear. The rising heat down in the valleys will drive people to go up the mountains to cool off in more pleasant temperatures”, he claims.
Global warming will cause existing vegetation zones to shift upwards by 500-700 metres, researchers believe. In the Alps, deciduous trees like oaks and maples will take the place of conifers. The spruce, the most important tree for the Swiss forest industry, is likely to disappear from the Swiss Plateau due to exposure to harmful organisms like the bark beetle.