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The world’s melting mountains

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UN: Global warming affecting alpine, polar communities

Taking the conservative view, global warming and climate change are not that bad – research shows that world-wide temperatures have increased just 0.6 degrees Celsius on average in the last 100 years.

What that statistic doesn’t tell you is that in some areas, notably our polar and alpine regions, the average temperature has increased a lot more than half a degree.

"It doesn’t sound like much, but we’ve seen a profound impact in alpine areas with that half a degree," said Ian Bruce, the project director of the David Suzuki Foundation’s Melting Mountains Awareness Program. Bruce was in Whistler last week to present "Melting Mountains – Global Climate Change and Mountain Environments" at the monthly AWARE meeting.

In the Rocky Mountains, the average temperatures have increased 1.5 degrees over the last century, while the mountains in B.C.’s Interior have seen an average increase in 1.1 degrees. The Coast Mountains of B.C. have followed the global average, mainly because the Coast Range is more affected by ocean climates than other ranges. Some arctic regions of Canada have seen an average increase of eight degrees, which is affecting species like the polar bear.

As a result of this warming, glaciers are shrinking, the snowline is retreating further up the mountains, and snow packs have been reduced by 10 per cent. Not only does this affect mountain resorts that depend on snow for tourism, it’s contributing to rising water levels and to changes to alpine environments that are impacting on the species that live there.

According to Bruce, this is the start of a downward cycle. As the concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to build, the planet traps and holds more solar radiation in the form of heat.

"Mountains are our best barometer of climate change. Looking at the mountains gives us an early glimpse of what may come to pass in the environment," said Bruce.

"The reason is that climate change is amplified in the alpine. Alpine snow and ice has reflective properties, and a lot of the energy and heat to fall on alpine areas gets reflected back out.

"When the snow and ice melt, it exposes dark ground which does the opposite, absorbing more heat and provoking more melting. That’s why alpine areas have to be on the front lines of the climate change debate."

Bruce’s presentation in Whistler coincided with the release last week of a United Nations Environment Program study on alpine warming.

That study looked at data from ski resorts in Canada, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Australia and the U.S.

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