Greening Alps Now Visible From Space

Greening Alps Now Visible From Space

The image of snow-covered peaks along the Alps stretching across Europe could be a thing of the past. According to new research published in Science, widespread snow melt and vegetation growth across the mountain range is now visible from space. Analysis of satellite data from 1984 to 2021 showed that 77% of the area located above the treeline is “greening.” Approximately 10% of the snow cover has already been lost. Antoine Guisan, one of the researchers on the study, emphasized the significance of these findings to the Guardian, stating that “previous analyses of satellite data hadn’t identified any such trend.”

Nicknamed the “water tower” of Europe, the Alps supply 40% of the continent's drinking water. The region’s water supply will likely be impacted as snow cover declines. According to Sabine Rumpf, the study’s first author, snow melt at this scale is likely to have enormous consequences on biodiversity and ecosystems.

NewsRme: The Alps are becoming green as a result of climate change, June 3, 2022.

ABC: Europe’s most iconic mountain is a climate change warning, October 8, 2019.

Why This Matters

Researchers emphasize that greening will continue as global temperatures rise. Snow naturally reflects sunlight, but without that barrier, warming occurs faster -- a vicious cycle. Similarly, as the permafrost and polar ice caps melt, the ocean’s surface is increasingly exposed to sunlight, causing further warming. Effects include ice-shelf collapse and underwater sinkholes. A study published last year found that glaciers are melting at record speed. In Eastern Africa specifically, glaciers are expected to vanish within 20 years, likely displacing millions of people. Meanwhile, in the Western US, the region’s lack of snow further jeopardizes water access during a historically severe drought.

The YEARS Project: Why Melting Glaciers Are So Scary, June 30, 2020.

Changing Habitats, Changing Species

Though increased plant growth might lead to increased carbon sequestration, researchers predict that the benefit will be relatively insignificant -- in the Alps region, specifically. In fact, the consequences of greening are likely to outweigh any potential global benefits. As the environment changes, native plants are struggling to survive. Alpine species typically defend themselves against mountainous conditions through slow reproduction and long lifespans; new ones tend to grow and reproduce more quickly. Unable to compete for resources, many native plants may vanish entirely.

FRANCE 24: In the Alps, climate change is turning glaciers into lakes, October 22, 2021.

DW: Climate change | Europe’s melting glaciers (documentary), July 31, 2019.