EXPLAINED: Why warm winters are especially bad for Switzerland

The weather has been unseasonably warm throughout the country lately, with temperatures this Sunday reaching over 21 degrees in some parts of Switzerland. But as enjoyable as this springlike weather may be, it is a bad sign for the future, experts warn.

EXPLAINED: Why warm winters are especially bad for Switzerland
Swiss glaciers, like there Gorner Ridge above Zermatt. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

The climate as we know it in the Northern Hemisphere —warm summers and cold winters —  is changing.

What causes warmer winters?

Blame the Arctic weather pattern that scientists believe is trapping cold air in the polar region, stopping it from flowing south. Unfortunately, this phenomenon could become ‘the new normal’ as global warming increases in pace.

What kind of changes are taking place in Switzerland because of the warmer climate?

According to climate expert Julien Perrot, unseasonable temperatures are disrupting the natural cycle: the dandelions are starting to come out of the ground, the crocuses are open, the snakes are out and about when they should still be in hibernatation, and the amphibians have started their migration towards the marshes.

If the warm-winter trend continues, various species could become weaker and change their behavioural patterns in order to adapt. That is not the evolutionary path that nature intended.

Why is this bad?

We can expect far-reaching and devastating consequences of warmer winters, such as glaciers continuing to melt at an alarming rate. Lakes, including those in Switzerland are warming faster than the surrounding environment.

As ice melts, more water flows into Alpine lakes, eroding the coastline and increasing the risk of flooding.

According to a document issued by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), “we are seeing changes in the number and size of lakes which are related to global warming”. 

The report goes on to say that “the retreat of glaciers is one of the most dramatic signs of global warming and has a major impact on security and how millions of people live their lives”.

READ ALSO: Swiss glaciers shrink ten percent in five years

The situation was especially bad after last summer’s heatwaves

During two weeks of intense heat at the end of June and again in late July, the volume of snow and ice melting on Swiss glaciers … was equivalent to the country’s total annual consumption of drinking water.

A special commission at the Swiss Academy of Sciences said: “This means that, over the past 12 months, around two percent of Switzerland’s total glacier volume has been lost,” the commission said, adding that the rate of loss over the past five years “exceeds 10 percent.”

That marks “a rate of decline never previously observed in the time series extending back for more than a century,” it said.

Aside from melting glaciers, are Alps in any other danger due to warmer weather?

Yes, increasing temperatures are causing massive rock slides in the mountains because the permafrost layers which used to be permanently frozen are now melting. This is happening throughout the Alps, including in the Matterhorn and the Eiger.

When nature is out of whack, as it is now, “it’s hard not to be a catastrophist”, Perrot said.

“We have potentially entered a disaster phase and we have to wake up urgently”, he added.

READ MORE: Swiss cities enjoy record sunny January, but what’s next for winter? 

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Climate protesters block Geneva’s private jet terminal

Dozens of climate activists blocked access to the private jet terminal at Geneva airport Saturday, demanding a halt to the "absurd" mode of luxury transportation.

Climate protesters block Geneva's private jet terminal
Photos: AFP

Around 100 people took part, organised by pressure group Extinction Rebellion, large groups sitting in front of three entrances to block access to the building for several hours.

Extinction Rebellion describes itself as an international movement using non-violent civil disobedience “to achieve radical change in order to minimise the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse”.

As musicians played, protesters wearing armbands with the Extinction Rebellion logo sang songs and danced around with white, cloud-shaped placards and banners with slogans like “Be part of the solution, not pollution”.

“We are facing a total climate emergency,” Extinction Rebellion spokesman Micael Metry told AFP.

“Private jets emit 20 times more CO2 per passenger than normal airplanes,” he said.

“It is very important for us to denounce this completely absurd and unjust means of transportation, which is used by a tiny fraction of the population.”

Sonia Ediger, who said she had come from Lausanne to take part in the protest, called on the “powerful people of the world” who fly private jets “to come down out of the clouds”.

“We are seeing the world collapse around us, we see catastrophe after catastrophe, ever bigger, ever more frequent, all around us,” she told AFP, insisting that “radical change” was needed.

A large number of Geneva police, some in riot gear, assembled to monitor the unauthorised protest, but kept their distance for several hours.

At mid-afternoon, police asked the demonstrators to identify themselves and then leave in small groups, which they did peacefully.

Police spokesman Silvain Guillaume-Gentil told the ATS news agency they had not yet decided whether to bring charges.