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WIREs Clim Change
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Is snow in the Alps receding or disappearing?

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Abstract Snow in a populated and economically diverse region such as the Alps plays an important role in both natural environmental systems, (e.g., hydrology and vegetation), and a range of socio‐economic sectors (e.g., tourism or hydropower). Changes in snow amount and duration may impact upon these systems in various ways. The objective of this text is to assess whether the public perception that snow has been receding in recent decades in the European Alps is indeed upheld by observations of the behavior of the mountain snow‐pack in the last few decades. This article will show that, depending on location—and in particular according to altitude—the quantity of snow and the length of the snow season have indeed changed over the past century. While a major driving factor for this is clearly to be found in recent warming trends, other processes also contribute to the reduction in snow, such as the influence of the North Atlantic Oscillation on the variability of the mountain snow‐pack. This article ends with a short glimpse to the future, based on recent model studies that suggest that snow at low to medium elevations will indeed have all but disappeared by 2100. WIREs Clim Change 2012 doi: 10.1002/wcc.179 This article is categorized under: Paleoclimates and Current Trends > Modern Climate Change

Map of Switzerland showing the climate observation sites used in this article.

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Decadal changes in the four winter modes Cold/Dry, Cold/Wet, Warm/Dry, Warm/Wet for the Zurich measurement site.

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(a) Mean winter snow thickness for the winter months December. January–February–April for 10 representative stations ranging from 500 to 2700 m above sea‐level (Zurich, 556 m; St Gallen, 779 m; Château d'Oex, 985 m; Engelberg, 1035 m; Scuol, 1298 m; Montana, 1508 m; Davos, 1590 m; Segl‐Maria, 1798 m; Arosa, 1840 m; Weissfluhjoch, 2690 m). Values have been smoothed with a 5‐year running mean to remove the high noisiness of interannual snow variability. (b) As for (a), except for mean snow duration beyond a 10‐cm depth threshold for the 6‐month period November–April.

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(a) Evolution of mean winter (December–January– February, or DJF) temperature anomalies (based on the baseline period 1961–1990) from the winter 1930/1931 to the winter 2009/2010 (80‐years) for six representative sites ranging from 550 to 3580 m above sea level (Zurich, 556 m; Château d'Oex, 985 m; Montana, 1505 m; Davos, 1590 m; Saentis, 2502 m; Junfraujoch, 3580 m). (b) As for (a), except for total winter precipitation (without the Jungraujoch site).

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