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Greening in the Alps may harm its natural beauty, accelerate warming

The Alps may be suffering from a lack of snow and an increase in vegetation, researchers say.

(CN) — A greener Alps means trouble for its plants and snow, suggests a new report by European scientists.

The researchers used satellite data to show that vegetation increased in nearly 80% of the Alps between 1984 and 2021, per their new report published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed journal, Science.

Professor Sabine Rumpf of Switzerland’s University of Basel led the team, which also included Dutch and Finnish researchers who aided in investigating changes in snow cover and vegetation in the famed mountain range.

Using satellite data from 1984 to 2021, the researchers report that climate change plant biomass increased by more than 77% over that time frame in a process known as “greening”.

“The Arctic is warming much more than other areas of the globe but also mountain environments are warming faster than the global average,” wrote Rumpf via email. “The assumption that we might observe similar patterns in mountain environments as in the Artic was therefore apparent.”

According to Rumpf, the Alps are becoming greener because plants are colonizing new areas, its vegetation becoming denser and taller to the detriment of its environment. She stated that plant species from higher and lower elevations grow at different rates, with lower elevation plants growing at faster rates than higher elevation plants, which specialize in surviving harsh conditions. This could prove hazardous in the event these plant species interact due to greening.

“Alpine plants are adapted to harsh conditions, but they’re not very competitive,” said Rumpf in a press release. “Faster growing species will outcompete the specialists. This is very worrying because mountains harbor disproportionately high biodiversity. If these species lose their habitats, this implies a loss of the unique flora.”

As for snow cover, the researchers focused on regions below 1,700 meters and excluded glaciers and forest. In the study, the team found that snow cover decreased by almost 10% in the remaining regions. According to the authors, previous studies on melting snow in the Alps that used satellite data didn’t highlight such a change.

“This may be because the resolution of the satellite images was insufficient or because the periods considered were too short,” explained Professor Antoine Guisan from the University of Lausanne in the press statement. Satellite data could show which areas had snow cover and which areas did not, but the images couldn’t accurately portray the snow depth.

Which leads to another area of concern: the long-term effects from a lack of snow and ice.

“Greener mountains reflect less sunlight and therefore lead to further warming — and, in turn, to further shrinkage of reflective snow cover," Rumpf said in the press release. Climate change causes glaciers to melt and permafrost to thaw, leading to an increased risk of landslides, rockfalls and mudflows. Also, Rumpf emphasized, snow and ice provide a source of drinking water in the Alps.

“Mountains are sometimes referred to as the water towers of the globe. This is because a lot of our drinking water is derived from melt water from snow and ice. If snow is lost, the precipitation is not stored as long in the season as previously but is instead discharged and not as much available later in the season,” explained Rumpf in her email interview with Courthouse News.

Also, a lack of snow in the Alps could cause issues in both the recreation and tourism industries.

“The beauty of the Alps is their nature, for example the unique Alpine flowers. But tourism is of course not only based on summer tourism but also on winter tourism which is depending on snow cover,” Rumpf added in the interview.

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