Alpine Mountain Climate Changes

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Alpine Mountain Climates

The Alps are the highest mountain range in Europe. They are the best-studied mountains in the world. The Alpine mountain climate is highly complicated and confusing being one of the most interesting objects for research, therefore. In addition, the Alps are experiencing climate change, which is typical for the whole planet, but have distinctive features of this region. This paper will seek to examine the factors influencing the climate in the mountains, by the example of the Alps, as well as possible climate changes and their implications for the region.

Mountains are unique objects both in terms of general natural science, and meteorology. They have presented a great interest for studying over many decades and centuries. The climate is a certain set of meteorological conditions for a certain location over a long period of time. However, the climate in mountain areas has its own specific features that distinguish it from the one of large lowland regions. The mountain climate is heterogeneous and depends on many factors.

The Alps are among the most famous mountains in the world and the highest ones in Europe. Their unique location and a variety of climatic conditions caused extensive research and study of this region. Due to their location in the center of Western Europe, they are one of the most studied mountain systems in the western scientific tradition. Many of the concepts related to mountains of various areas of the world are named after the Alps (Alpine climate zone, Alpine Folding period, alpine meadows, alpinism, etc.).

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The main purpose of the current paper is to examine the factors influencing the climate in mountains, by the example of the Alps, as well as possible climate changes and their implications for the region.

The Alps

The Alps are the highest mountain range in Europe. It is divided into western, eastern and central parts. Alpine mountain system passes through the Mediterranean coast of France – Northern Italy – Switzerland – South Germany – Austria. The length is approximately 960 kilometers. Do not forget about the famous alpine meadows, which descend to the Adriatic (Croatia and Slovenia).

The highest point in the Alps is the peak of Mont Blanc, which is 4,808 meters. Mont Blanc is between France and Italy. The Western Alps, where Mont Blanc Mountain is located, are the highest. The Eastern Alps are lower and wider. The highest point in the Eastern Alps is Mount Bernina, which reaches 4,049 meters.

Various European rivers (Rhine, Po, Rhone, and Danube) originate in the Alps. Their sources are formed on the snowy peaks and glaciers. Snow melting line is at an altitude between 2,440 and 3,050 meters. There are also many glacial lakes, such as Lake Geneva or Lake Constance, in the Alps.

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The Alps play the role of climate division of Europe, as well as a natural border between European states. They possess great tourism potential being actively developed by the European countries. Ski resorts, mountain biking, hiking trails, lake recreation, climbing, snowboarding are not the complete list of tourist sites in Alpine mountains.

Mountain Climate Factors

Mountain climate is ruled by four major factors. They are continentality, latitude, topography and altitude (Beniston, 2006).

Continentality means territory’s proximity to the ocean. If mountains are located in the region close to the ocean or the sea, then their climate differs by small diurnal and annual amplitudes of air temperature, relatively high humidity, cool summers and mild winters, large cloudiness, caused by intense cyclonic activity and strong winds. Climate in mountains, far from the ocean and the sea, is characterized by consistently hot summers, frosty winters and low rainfall. However, the European Alps are represented by three types of climate: Mediterranean, Atlantic and continental.

Latitude determines climate significantly. Conditions in the Arctic are radically different from the tropical, thanks to latitude of these areas. Earth has a spherical shape; therefore, its surface takes the sun’s rays at different angles in different latitudes. With the change of the angle of sunlight incidence, the amount of solar energy, received in specific areas, changes that directly affects the climate type. In areas of the North and South poles, arranged in so-called high latitudes, the sun’s rays fall at very acute angles. Here, the polar climate is cold, with short summers and long, dark winters. Territory on both sides of the equator is called the tropics. Here, the sun is almost perpendicularly in the sky at noon, directly overhead most of the year, and the duration of daylight is the same from month to month. These areas receive more sunlight than any other territory in the world. The tropical climate is warm all year round, usually with distinct wet and dry seasons. Mid-latitudes (between the tropics and Polar Regions) have the temperate climate with distinct seasons: winter, spring, summer, and autumn. Here, the sun is low in winter and high in summer, so summer days are long, and winter days are short.

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Influence of topography on meteorological elements is varied. Thus, the overall size of a mountain range, its dismemberment and orientation towards prevailing winds affect the large-scale synoptic processes; the elevation of relief and its shape are important primarily for regional processes, and the inclination of slopes and their orientation form local differentiation of the climate. High ridges, being a significant barrier to the airflow, form natural climatic partitions, modifying modes of temperature, evaporation and other physical processes.

Altitude is a key factor affecting the climate in the mountains, because of “atmospheric density, pressure and temperature decrease with height in the troposphere” (Beniston, 2006). For every 1,000 meters above sea level, the average temperature decreases by 7 ° C. Therefore, cold polar climate reigns on high mountains. Furthermore, when lifting up the precipitation increases. In the mountains, precipitation increases only up to a certain height (in the Alps it is under 2,000 meters), and then there is a decrease. This is understandable, because while lifting up the temperature decreases, which entails the reduction of vapor in the air; eventually moisture in the air is so small that even the re-precipitation can not give the former amount. Besides, the mountains influence the distribution of winds, causing part of the special winds, like foehn winds in the Alps. It is a strong, gusty, warm and dry local wind, blowing from the mountains into the valley. “Foehn winds can and do occur without precipitation” (Richner & Haechler, 2008).

Alpine Climate Review

The climate of the Alps is highly complicated and confusing, due to the unique location, difference in heights and latitudes, presence or absence of nearby seas. However, the complexity and uniqueness of this region contribute to it attractiveness for climate and environmental studying.



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“The Alps are affected by four main climatic influences: from the west flows the relatively mild, moist air of the Atlantic; cool or cold polar air descends from northern Europe; continental air masses, cold and dry in winter and hot in summer, dominate in the east; and, to the south, warm Mediterranean air flows northward. Daily weather is influenced by location and passage of cyclonic storms and the direction of the accompanying winds as they pass over the mountains” (Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2014).

Here days are hot, and nights are cold. In the mountains, mornings are sunny, but afternoons are cloudy. Winter brings frequent snowfalls and long periods of low temperature. The climate on the northern side of the Alps is more cold and wet, and, vice versa, it is warmer and drier on the south. The average July temperature is below +14° C, in January – up to -15° C. Annual rainfall is 1000 millimeters. Snow lies on the plains from one to six months a year. There is fog in valleys throughout most of the winter.

Local winds are usual for the Alps. Foremost among these is warm and dry foehn, which is formed by the descent of air masses along the mountain slopes and their compression, and is accompanied by adiabatic heating. This significantly increases the local temperature, which leads to sharp melting of snow and frequent avalanches that pose a threat to people’s lives and can cut the whole mountain areas from the outside world. At the same time, foehn creates the conditions for agriculture in much higher altitudes, than in those places, where it does not happen.

Climate and land cover of the Alps has clear vertical zoning. Alps are divided into five climatic zones with different types of environment. Climate, flora and fauna are vary in different climatic zones of the Alps. There are five climate zones (Cebon, 1998).

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Mountain massif area above 3,000 meters is called the nival zone. This area has a cold climate and is permanently covered with snow for a long period. That is why there is practically no vegetation in the nival zone.

Alpine meadows lie at altitudes ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 meters. This zone is less cold than the nival one. Alpine meadows are characterized by specific, low vegetation and vegetation that forms “herbal pillows”. It makes this type similar to tundra ecosystem; thereby the alpine meadows are also called “alpine tundra”.

The subalpine zone is located just below the alpine zone, at an altitude of 1,500 to 2,000 meters. Subalpine zone is covered with spruce forests; ambient temperature rises slowly. In the subalpine zone temperature rises in the summer to a maximum +24° C on hot sunny days, but usually does not reach +16° C. Frosts are possible at any time of year.

The temperate zone is located at altitudes ranging from 1,000 to 1,500 meters. Millions of oak trees grow in this region. Here, people are engaged in agriculture.

Lowlands, characterized by a high variety of vegetation, is below 1,000 meters. Villages are also located in the valley as the temperature regime is suitable for the life of people and animals.

Climate Change in the Alps

Climate change is an important issue of modern time. This topic is widely discussed by scientists, politicians and social activists. Measures for the prevention of climate change consequences are considered on local, national and international levels. It should be noted that the effects of climate change are more visible and tangible in mountainous regions than in other areas. The Alps are no exception. Such changes can cause considerable damage not only to the ecosystem of the region, but also to its traditional industries: winter tourism, transport, energy production, agriculture and etc.

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Climate change is the term used to describe long and ongoing climate fluctuations, both throughout the Earth and in particular regions. It is expressed in a statistically significant deviation from the multiyear forecast parameters over periods ranging from decades to millions of years. This concept is often equated with the term “global warming”, caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

According to NASA (, there are several factors that cause climate change:

  • Water vapor. It is the most abundant greenhouse gas, but, at the same time, it is the only natural. Water vapor is a result of the heat of the Earth and leads to more rainfall forming the so-called vicious circle;
  • Carbon dioxide. Its large number in the air is caused by the burning of fuels and deforestation;
  • Methane. The main cause of its emission is rice cultivation and cattle farming;
  • Nitrous oxide. It is a powerful chemical compound derived from the use of fertilizers in agriculture, fossil fuel combustion, nitric acid production, and biomass burning;
  • Chlorofluorocarbons. It is of industrial origin, as well.

Concentration of greenhouse gases in turn has led to the significant warming during the 20th century. Earth skin temperature increased on average by 0.6° C (Disch, Reppe, & Liebing, 2007).

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Solomon et al., 2007), the extent of future global warming will range from 1.8° C to 4° C, depending on future greenhouse gas emissions. This can lead to serious climate change, which may result in terrible floods or/and droughts.

The Alps are particularly sensitive to climate change. Disch (2007) gives several proofs of climate change in the Alps.

First of all, the ratio of winter and summer precipitation has changed in favor of the former. Winters have become wetter and summers – drier. In addition, annual precipitation amount has also increased.

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At the same time, Alpine snow duration and amount have considerably decreased since the mid 1980s. Increase in the total amount of precipitation along with decreasing amount of snow indicate that here precipitation occurs as rain rather than snow. An important point of the snow issue is also an increased number of avalanches. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Parry, Canziani, Palutikof, van der Linden, & Hanson., 2007) suggests that every 1°C of warming will lead to several weeks decrease in the duration of snow cover. There is a terrible scenario of 4° C warming (Beniston, Keller, Koffi, & Goyette, 2004). Under this theory, Alpine snow volume may reduce by at least 90% at about 1,000 meter altitude, 50% at 2,000 meters, and 35% at 3,000 meters. Furthermore, warmer climate may lead to reduction in snow cover duration (by 50-60 days at 2,000-2,500 meters and 100 days at 1,000 meters altitude). Snow cover changes will affect water melting and vegetation.

Alpine glaciers decreased on 50% in an area from 1850 to 2000. Zemp et al. (2006) argues that a 3°C warming of summer air temperature will lead to 80% reduction of the currently existing Alpine glacier cover; the final volume of the glaciers will be just 10% of the glacier condition of 1850. According to his research, there is a possibility that Alpine glaciers will disappear in the coming decades as 90% of them are already less than one square kilometer in area. Ice changes will lead to changes in the water flow regimes and will affect shipping (Watson et al., 1997).

Changes have also occurred in extreme temperatures. If the number of extreme hot days in summer has increased, the extreme cold winter days have become really rare. It is assumed that the Alps are increasingly likely to experience periods of heat (Disch, Reppe, & Liebing, 2007). In turn, a warmer climate will lead to more frequent extreme precipitation (above 30 mm per day). 2°C warming may result in 20% increase of extreme precipitation. It may lead to severe flooding, dangerous for the ecosystem of the Alps and their inhabitants.



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Disch (2007) argues that the overall picture of climate change in the Alps by 2100 might look as follows: regional temperature will increase in between 3°C or 4.5° C, depending on future greenhouse gas emissions; amount of summer rainfall will decrease by 30%; winter precipitation will increase by 10-15%; precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow; cloudiness will reduce too.

What are the implications of these climatic changes in the Alps? First of all, climate change will result in vegetation change. It will lead to “a longer vegetation period, earlier budding, and an upward shift of some species of flora and fauna” (Disch, Reppe, & Liebing, 2007). There are three possible ways of plants reaction on climate change: adaptation, migration or disappearance. However, the most probable option is migration.

Climate change will also affect forests and woodland. Variations in precipitation and temperature can lead to a change in plant species as well as more obvious and heavy consequences, like forest fires or storms.

Changes in climate may also influence agriculture. Extreme situations will be the greatest threat to farmers. At the same time, an increase in precipitation may have a positive impact on the harvest.

One of the most terrible consequences of climate change can be flooding events, resulted from glacier and snow melting. Today, the glaciers act as water towers. Their melting along with snowmelt may result in serious implications.

Natural disasters are the most obvious and threatening effects of climate change. It may be fire, flood, drought, snow and ice avalanches, destabilization of rock faces, etc. These events may occur singly or in groups. Some events may be the cause of others.

All of the above is not a complete list of possible consequences. But, it should be noted that it is only an assumption. Real variations may not be as shocking. However, climate change is a threat both to the environment and society. Possible variations and outcomes should not be in any way underestimated. This is one of those cases where the overestimation is much better than underestimation. Fortunately, the authorities of states, located at the territory of the Alps, understand the scale of possible threats, develop climate scenarios and assume preventive measures. Eight countries in the Alpine region (Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia, and Switzerland) and the European Union have signed the Alpine Convention in 1991. The primary aim of this document is protection of Alpine natural environment; and the climate change is a key moment of this issue.


The Alps are the highest mountain range in Europe; it passes through the Mediterranean coast of France – Northern Italy – Switzerland – South Germany – Austria. Their length is 960 kilometers and the maximum height is 4,808 meters. Many important rivers and lakes are placed here. A variety of Alpine flora and fauna surprises. This region attracts not only tourists, but also scientists from around the world. One of its distinguishing features is the diversity of the climate.

The mountain climate is a very complex and interesting subject for studying. It depends on many factors, key of which are continentality, latitude, topography and altitude. Closeness or remoteness from the ocean and equator, height and shape of relief affect the temperature, humidity, length of the day and the night, wind direction and many other climate indicators. A set of these factors determines the climate of a particular part of a mountain region.

The climate of the Alps is highly complicated and confusing, due to the unique location, difference in heights and latitudes, presence or absence of nearby seas. It is affected by four main influences: Atlantic moist air from the west; cold polar air from northern Europe; continental air masses; and south, warm Mediterranean air. Climate and land cover of the Alps are divided into five vertical zones: the nival zone, Alpine meadows, the subalpine zone, temperate zone, and lowlands. Each of them has specific climate and environment.

The Alps, as the whole world, are experiencing climate change. It is the term used to describe long and ongoing climate fluctuations. It is often equated with the term “global warming”. The cause of climate change is greenhouse gas emission. Results of climate change in the Alps are more than a few; increase in precipitation (mainly rainfall), reduced duration of snow cover, glacier melting, more frequent extreme events, etc. Projected scenarios of future climate change seem very threatening. Future climate change may lead to variations in the ecosystem, and, respectively, to the modification in lifestyles of local people. Therefore, it is important to investigate this topic, design possible climate change and take preventive measures.

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