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University of Basel

02 June 2022

The consequences of climate change in the Alps are visible from space

View of the Swiss Alps
View over the Swiss Alps, from the Pischahorn towards the summits called Plattenhörner. (Photo: Sabine Rumpf)

Global warming has a particularly pronounced impact on the Alpine region. Like the Arctic, this European mountain range is becoming greener. Writing in the journal Science, researchers from the University of Lausanne and the University of Basel have now used satellite data to show that vegetation above the tree line has increased in nearly 80% of the Alps. Snow cover is also decreasing, albeit so far only slightly.

Melting glaciers have become a symbol of climate change in the Alps. Now, the reduction in snow cover is already visible from space but this is by no means the biggest change. This is the conclusion of a research team led by Professor Sabine Rumpf from the University of Basel and Professor Grégoire Mariéthoz and Professor Antoine Guisan from the University of Lausanne.

Working with colleagues in the Netherlands and Finland, the researchers investigated the change in snow cover and vegetation using high-resolution satellite data from 1984 to 2021. Over this period, plant biomass above the tree line increased in more than 77% of the observed area. This phenomenon of “greening” due to climate change is already well documented in the Arctic and starts also to be detected in mountains.

Greater plant biomass in three-quarters of the Alps

“The scale of the change has turned out to be absolutely massive in the Alps,” says Sabine Rumpf, lead author of the study and, since February, assistant professor at the University of Basel. The Alps are becoming greener because plants are colonizing new areas and the vegetation is generally becoming denser and taller.

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