Alps Could Be Ice Free by 2100, Study Warns

July 11, 2006

Glaciers in the European Alps are melting so fast that the mountains could be virtually ice free by the end of this century, a new global warming study warns.

Shrinking glaciers could severely affect tourism in the snowcapped region and leave local communities vulnerable to natural disasters, the study authors say.

(See photos of the melting Alps.)

The team, from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, predicted the likely impact of rising temperatures on the European Alps using modeling experiments based on past rates of glacier loss and future climate-change forecasts.

The study, to be published later this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, suggests the Alps will become almost free of ice by 2100, given a nine-degree-Fahrenheit (five-degree-Celsius) rise in summer air temperature.

A temperature increase of 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) would see glacier cover shrink by 80 percent by the end of the century, the team adds.

Both temperature-rise scenarios are within the range forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), based in Geneva, Switzerland.

The total area covered by Alpine glaciers has shrunk by 50 percent since 1850—with 22 percent disappearing since 1985, when melting began to accelerate—the researchers found.

Glaciers have lost an average of one percent of their volume per year since 1975, the study adds.

Their volume shrank by fully 8 percent in a single year, 2003, followed by an estimated 3 percent loss in 2004, the researchers say.

Total glacier volume is estimated at just a third of the 1850 figure.

The team says hot, dry summers like the one in 2003 are expected to become more frequent.

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