Introduction

The phenomenon of permafrost or perennially frozen ground is a specific ground thermal condition (see Chap. 3). Atmospheric warming is therefore likely to have strong if not dramatic impacts on permafrost, making cold areas at high latitudes and high altitudes especially vulnerable. The phenomenon of permafrost in cold mountains, however, has long been neglected in scientific research. As a consequence, the effects of global warming on perennially frozen mountain slopes have been studied for little more than a decade only. First overviews were given by Cheng and Dramis (1992) and Haeberli et al. (1993a). They were soon followed by first thoughts about goals and possibilities of long-term monitoring (Haeberli et al. 1993b).

In the meantime, concentrated efforts were undertaken to build up a corresponding knowledge base (Haeberli et al. 1998) and to establish baselines for long-term monitoring within the framework of the Global Climate Observing System/Global Terrestrial Observing System (GCOS/GTOS). The most systematic efforts were undertaken in European mountains, which form an important longitudinal transect from Svalbard through Scandinavia and the Alps to the Sierra Nevada in Spain (Harris et al. 2001). Corresponding information (Harris et al. 2003; Isaksen et al. 2007), together with results from similar observations elsewhere — especially from high mountains in Asia (Jin et al. 2000; Marchenko et al. 2007) — is now more and more entering international climate change assessments (IPCC 2007a, b; UNEP 2007).

An intense learning process has started, for which long-term observations are key elements enabling improved process understanding. The present review can therefore only represent a brief and rather preliminary halt on a widening avenue of fascinating progress and rapid knowledge development concerning a still too little-known aspect of the global environment. With a primary focus on experience from the densely populated European Alps with their rugged topography, the review starts with a short explanation of basic principles, and continues with some outlines of available

Wilfried Haeberli

Glaciology, Geomorphodynamics & Geochronology, Department of Geography, University of Zurich, Winterthurerstr. 190, CH-8057 Zurich, Switzerland e-mail: [email protected]

R. Margesin (ed.) Permafrost Soils, Soil Biology 16,

DOI: 10.1007/978-3-540-69371-0, © Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2009

methodologies in order to summarize first results of observations and to compare them with numerical model studies with regard to possible consequences for human habitats in some of the most climate-sensitive regions on Earth.

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