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Alps Said to Be at Warmest in Centuries

by: Veronika Oleksyn    5 December 2006

Global warming has driven temperatures in the Alps to their highest in 1,300 years, according to one of the authors of an EU-backed climate study.

The study reconstructed the climate back to the year 755 in the region encompassing France's Rhone Valley to the west, Budapest, Hungary, to the east, Tuscany, Italy, to the south and Nuremberg, Germany, to the north.

"We are currently experiencing the warmest period in the Alpine region in 1,300 years," Reinhard Boehm, a climatologist at Austria's Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics, said Tuesday.

Boehm, who conducted the study with a group of European institutes between March 2003 and August 2006, said the current warm period in the Alpine region began in the 1980s.

He noted that similar periods occurred in the 10th and 12th centuries, but those temperatures were "slightly below the temperatures we've experienced over the past 20 years."

People first had an impact on the global climate in the 1950s, Boehm said, noting that at first, the release of aerosols into the atmosphere cooled the climate. Efforts to limit their production in recent decades meant that the skies became clearer, allowing the sun's rays to reach the Earth and enabling the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane to have more of an impact. Greenhouse gases trap heat and are blamed for global warming.

"It will undoubtedly get warmer in the future," Boehm said.

Sponsored by the European Union, the project standardized data collected in the Alpine region in the past 250 years and used it to create computer models. Researchers then extended those models over a period of roughly 1,300 years, using mostly tree ring measurements. Ice core measurements were also considered.

Unseasonably warm weather this autumn has caused concern in Austria's ski resorts, where slopes are still largely covered in green grass. Many, such as St. Anton am Arlberg, have had to postpone the start of their skiing season, and some have tried attracting tourists with alternative activities, such as hiking.

Austrian ski resorts usually open at the end of November or early December.

Wilma Himmelfreundpointner, deputy director of the St. Anton Tourist Office, said the resort can cover 80 percent of its slopes using snowmaking machines. But mild temperatures and sunshine have made that impossible this season, she said.

"What can you do? One can't change the weather," Himmelfreundpointner said, adding some tourists go on day trips to nearby glaciers to ski.

In some cases, organizers have had to be creative to make sure their events take place as planned.

In Hochfilzen, Tyrol, organizers of an upcoming international race went to the road leading up to Grossglockner Austria's highest mountain to get snow needed to prepare their track.

It took about five days to truck between 247,000 to 283,000 cubic feet of snow from Grossglockner, said organizer Thomas Abfalter.