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The world’s melting mountains

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According to climate scientists, alpine areas are facing temperature increases from 1.4 degrees to 5.8 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. By that time, snow levels in Europe are expected to retreat to 1,300 metres, the altitude of Raven’s Nest on Whistler Mountain.

Even the most conservative estimate of 1.4 degrees would leave lower elevation ski resorts without natural snow.

Other resorts will have to focus on operations higher up the mountain, and will have to depend more on snowmaking to get through shorter seasons. The International Olympic Committee is concerned that only a handful of ski resorts may be able to offer enough vertical for downhill skiing competitions, reducing the number of cities that can bid for the Winter Games.

If the study is correct, ski resorts in Australia won’t be economically viable after 2070. Resorts in North America will have to increase artificial snowmaking by 48 to 187 per cent in the same period to maintain current levels.

In Switzerland, an estimated 15 per cent of ski resorts are reporting unreliable levels of snowfall. Up to half of all Swiss resorts could be experiencing the same conditions within the next few decades.

The study was released in advance of the UN conference on the Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse emissions that is taking place in Milan, Italy from Dec. 1 to 12.

According to Bruce, the world is experiencing higher concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) than at any time in the past half million years, with temperatures and GHGs spiking higher than during any previous warming trend.

"The glaciers are sending us a strong message, as melting rates are accelerating – melting has doubled roughly since the 1980’s," said Bruce. "Every year (Canada) is losing more fresh water than we use in six years, including homes, agriculture, everything."

About half of the people in the world rely on alpine runoff for fresh water. Approximately 30 per cent of Canadians get their water from alpine runoff. The majority of Whistler residents still rely on runoff, although the number of wells is increasing.

The impact of melting glaciers will be felt in the prairie provinces, where farmers and ranchers depend on snow melt for irrigation. The coast will also have problems as salmon runs are altered by higher water levels.

Globally, the increased snow melt has resulted in a situation where thousands of people are at risk of flooding as alpine lakes start to overflow. Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro could lose its ice cap within the next 15 years.

"The danger and trends are different in different parts of the world, but they’re there," said Bruce.