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The impact of climate change on snow

A discussion about how climate change will affect snow and the consequences it will have.
Ice mountains

Let’s reflect on how climate change will affect snow and what consequences that will have.

Snow’s impact on Earth

As an important factor in the Earth’s climate system, snow covers around 46 square kilometres of the earth’s surface each year. Snow cover helps regulate the earth’s surface and atmosphere and affects regional weather patterns.

Snow cover can have a reflectance effect since it reflects more than 80% of the incoming sunlight compared to around 30% by trees. Snow also acts as a good insulator and beneath a 30 cm snow layer, soil and organisms are protected from the climate conditions outside.

It is, then, not surprising to expect that any change in snowfall and snowpack can have significant effects on the Earth, locally and globally. Global warming is a factor that most probably will change snowfall and snowpack in the future.

Although it might seem reasonable to assume that global warming will decrease snow loading, in reality, snowfall in each area depends on orographic conditions, which are the conditions in the nearby mountains. Indeed, a significant increase in the snow load between 1990-2010 was observed in northern and eastern Italy.

Rain on snow (ROS)

Climate change has also changed the frequency of rain-on-snow (ROS) events, which can result in high run-off volumes and lead to large-scale flooding and avalanches. Climate change is expected to decrease the number of ROS, but the frequency of peak ROS is predicted to increase and is expected to happen in less than 5-10 years.

By 2050, the snow-covered areas in mainland Australia are projected to decrease by 22-85% and the length of the ski season is predicted to decrease by 15-99%.

How it will affect tourism

Climate change is also expected to affect tourism in Alpine regions such as Switzerland by reducing snow reliability. If climate change occurs, the altitude of snow-reliability will increase from 1200m (in 2002) to 1800m in upcoming years. Since snow cover is sensitive to variations in temperature and precipitation, major changes will take place due to climate change and this will affect the socio-economic conditions in the affected regions.

It is evident that climate change will undoubtedly affect snowfall, snowpack, snow layers, and will lead to social, economic, and even humanitarian issues in the future.

To learn more about snow and why it matters, check out the full course, from the Luleå University of Technology, below. 

© Luleå University of Technology
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Snow: What It Is and Why It Matters

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