Traveling in a warming world

Global warming accepted as fact in Austria; mountain communities planning for year-round tourism

Storm clouds build over Salzburg, Austria.
Many of Austria’s alpine glaciers are melting quickly, leading to concerns about long-term water supplies. Photo courtesy The Canary Project. Please click on the photo for more information.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Leaving Colorado in the midst of one of the most brutal heatwaves and droughts on record, it was hard to not think about global warming and climate change, especially after driving past thousands of acres of withered and stunted corn around DIA, with smoke from wildfires near and far hanging over the Front Range.

We were hoping our family visit to Austria would offer some relief, and sure enough, temperatures stayed in the 70s and low 80s during much of the time, a far cry from our last couple of trips to area, including 2003, when much of Europe was gripped by extreme warmth that killed up to 15,000 people in France.

Global warming deniers are fond of cherry picking statistics to try and show that the planet isn’t inexorably heating up; this year, they’ve tried to claim that cool temps in Europe somehow balance the extreme widespread heat across the U.S.

And while it may be true that western Europe was a little cooler this summer the last few years, all recent annual temperature averages across the parts of Germany and Austria we visited consistently rank among the top years on record. A little earlier this summer, Austria recorded its warmest temperatures of all time, reaching 99.9 degrees in Vienna. Parts of Austria recorded the rainiest summer on record this year, just another of the many worldwide extremes that make up the global warming puzzle.

And during our stay, the country was rocked by extreme and intense rainstorms that triggered giant mud and rockslides, killing several people. A few spots set daily rainfall records, and newspaper stories discussed how alpine permafrost melting may have contributed to the unusual volume of mud that came cascading off the mountainsides. Read about global warming case studies in Austria.

We flew into Frankfurt, Germany and even before we landed, we were able to see that western European countries are taking the issue of energy and climate change very seriously. During the last hour of the flight, we saw hundreds of wind turbines arrayed along ridgelines, in clumps near towns and in smaller clusters near villages and scattered across farmlands.

The approach seems to be to generate power where it’s needed, and the same goes for solar. During the train ride from Frankfurt to Linz, we were amazed to see photovoltaic arrays in every corner of the landscape: In the railroad right-of-way, in hay meadows and on the rooftops of residential and commercial buildings.

Climate issues in Austria aren’t all that different from those at home in Colorado — both places rely on winter tourism as a significant economic driver. Any significant changes in the timing and abundance of snowfall are likely to have a big effect.

Where there is a difference is in the fundamental public attitude about climate change. While the U.S. is still hopelessly mired in a largely political and ideological debate over whether the Earth is warming due to the emission of greenhouse gases, Austria (and most of Europe) has accepted to reality of a changing climate.

Instead of wasting time and energy on meaningless rhetoric, Austria’s civil society and the political leadership is planning for adaptation and working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at an aggressive pace. Upper Austria, where we spent most of our visit, has formed an alliance of eco-friendly communities which share the goal or producing 100 percent of their electrical and heating energy needs from renewable sources by 2030.

As a whole, the country already generates 65 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, including long-established hydroelectric facilities on swift alpine rivers.

The question of perception is interesting. Research on global warming impacts to alpine ecosystems focuses on some of the same things as studies here in Colorado — conversion of high altitude dwarf brush to forest; changing runoff dynamics, melting glaciers. But instead of being met with skepticism or political challenges, the documented changes are incorporated into policy documents very clearly stating some of the stark realities, for example:

“In the medium term the rise in temperature will offer the opportunity to extend the summer season in the Alpine regions and to concentrate more on all-year tourism, e.g. through an anticipated increase in summer days and a decrease in rainy days during the summer. The infrastructure, services offered and marketing in the regions will have to be adapted, however. As the anticipated climate trends at certain altitudes promise climatic advantages, it may be assumed that more land will be required, with an attendant increase in the impact on environmentally sensitive areas. Strict regional planning and a suitable framework for the development of tourist services in Alpine regions will be needed.”

Seems to be a clear-eyed and realistic way to deal with the coming changes. I’m hopeful that reason will prevail over knee-jerk ideological opposition in this country so we can get on with the serious business of dealing with climate change. The time for denial is past. the time for realistic action is now.


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