Articles | Volume 12, issue 2
The Cryosphere, 12, 759–794, 2018
The Cryosphere, 12, 759–794, 2018

Review article 01 Mar 2018

Review article | 01 Mar 2018

The European mountain cryosphere: a review of its current state, trends, and future challenges

Martin Beniston1,2, Daniel Farinotti3,4, Markus Stoffel1,5,6, Liss M. Andreassen7, Erika Coppola8, Nicolas Eckert9, Adriano Fantini8, Florie Giacona1,9, Christian Hauck10, Matthias Huss10, Hendrik Huwald11, Michael Lehning11,12, Juan-Ignacio López-Moreno13, Jan Magnusson7, Christoph Marty12, Enrique Morán-Tejéda14, Samuel Morin15, Mohamed Naaim9, Antonello Provenzale16, Antoine Rabatel17, Delphine Six17, Johann Stötter18, Ulrich Strasser18, Silvia Terzago19, and Christian Vincent17 Martin Beniston et al.
  • 1Institute for Environmental Sciences, University of Geneva, Switzerland
  • 2Department of Physics, University of Geneva, Switzerland
  • 3Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology (VAW), ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
  • 4Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), Birmensdorf, Switzerland
  • 5Department of Earth Sciences, University of Geneva, Switzerland
  • 6Department F-A Forel for Aquatic and Environmental Sciences, University of Geneva, Switzerland
  • 7Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate, Oslo, Norway
  • 8Abdus Salaam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, Italy
  • 9Institut National de Recherche sur les Technologies pour l'Environnement et l'Agriculture (IRSTEA), Saint Martin d'Hères, France
  • 10University of Fribourg, Department of Geosciences, Fribourg, Switzerland
  • 11École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Laboratory for Cryospheric Sciences, Lausanne, Switzerland
  • 12Swiss Federal Institute for Avalanche Research (SLF), Davos, Switzerland
  • 13Institute for Pyrenean Ecology (IPE-CSIC), Zaragoza, Spain
  • 14University of the Balearic Islands, Palma de Mallorca, Spain
  • 15Météo France, Centre d'Études de la Neige, Saint Martin d'Hères, France
  • 16CNR, Institute of Geosciences and Earth Resources, Pisa, Italy
  • 17Univertisé Grenoble-Alpes, CNRS, IRD, G-INP, IGE (UMR 5001), 38000 Grenoble, France
  • 18University of Innsbruck, Institute of Geography, Innsbruck, Austria
  • 19CNR, Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate (ISAC-CNR), Turin, Italy

Abstract. The mountain cryosphere of mainland Europe is recognized to have important impacts on a range of environmental processes. In this paper, we provide an overview on the current knowledge on snow, glacier, and permafrost processes, as well as their past, current, and future evolution. We additionally provide an assessment of current cryosphere research in Europe and point to the different domains requiring further research. Emphasis is given to our understanding of climate–cryosphere interactions, cryosphere controls on physical and biological mountain systems, and related impacts. By the end of the century, Europe's mountain cryosphere will have changed to an extent that will impact the landscape, the hydrological regimes, the water resources, and the infrastructure. The impacts will not remain confined to the mountain area but also affect the downstream lowlands, entailing a wide range of socioeconomical consequences. European mountains will have a completely different visual appearance, in which low- and mid-range-altitude glaciers will have disappeared and even large valley glaciers will have experienced significant retreat and mass loss. Due to increased air temperatures and related shifts from solid to liquid precipitation, seasonal snow lines will be found at much higher altitudes, and the snow season will be much shorter than today. These changes in snow and ice melt will cause a shift in the timing of discharge maxima, as well as a transition of runoff regimes from glacial to nival and from nival to pluvial. This will entail significant impacts on the seasonality of high-altitude water availability, with consequences for water storage and management in reservoirs for drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower production. Whereas an upward shift of the tree line and expansion of vegetation can be expected into current periglacial areas, the disappearance of permafrost at lower altitudes and its warming at higher elevations will likely result in mass movements and process chains beyond historical experience. Future cryospheric research has the responsibility not only to foster awareness of these expected changes and to develop targeted strategies to precisely quantify their magnitude and rate of occurrence but also to help in the development of approaches to adapt to these changes and to mitigate their consequences. Major joint efforts are required in the domain of cryospheric monitoring, which will require coordination in terms of data availability and quality. In particular, we recognize the quantification of high-altitude precipitation as a key source of uncertainty in projections of future changes. Improvements in numerical modeling and a better understanding of process chains affecting high-altitude mass movements are the two further fields that – in our view – future cryospheric research should focus on.

Short summary
This paper makes a rather exhaustive overview of current knowledge of past, current, and future aspects of cryospheric issues in continental Europe and makes a number of reflections of areas of uncertainty requiring more attention in both scientific and policy terms. The review paper is completed by a bibliography containing 350 recent references that will certainly be of value to scholars engaged in the fields of glacier, snow, and permafrost research.