Virtual Observatory of the Alps

Linking the high altitude research stations in the Alps

Environmental Research Station Schneefernerhaus

Main topic III

Alpine water balance

The Alpine region is of great hydrological importance. Over 40 % of the world population is living in mountainous areas in the river basin. Therefore, climate-related changes of the water balance in the mountains have a strong impact on water supply. But also the energy security via hydroelectric power plants, flood protection and winter tourism are affected

Although, hydrological-relevant topics for high mountain areas are rarely researched. The reason for this is the heterogeneity of those areas as well as of the contrary measurement conditions due to poor accessibility. Moreover, the water balance in Alpine regions is difficult to register, because of the matter and amount of precipitation, water exchange, drains and ground-water formation.

The goal of this project is to get a better knowledge about the alpine water balance, in order to estimate the future water ability. The main focus here is on the investigation of environmental radioactivity in the Alpine area.



TP III/01:Climate change and water balance in high mountain areas - Changes in local precipitation, snow accumulation and size of glaciers, melting processes as well as runoff in the northern Alpine area at the Zugspitze and in the central Alpine region at Sonnblick

TP III/02: Influence of turbulances on mixed clouds in the Alpine region

TP III/03: Impact of climate change on the alpine water balance and environmental radioactivtiy



TP III/01:Climate change and water balance in high mountina areas - Changes in local precipiation, snow accumulation and size of glaciers, melting processes as well as runoff in the northern Alpine area at the Zugspitze and in the central Alpine region at Sonnblick

The Alps are a climate sensitive system that is very important in the hydrological context. Thus, it is expected, that climate change has huge effects in the hydrosphere. To fulfill the role of the Alps as a water supplier, it is necessary to continuously monitor the changes of the water balance in high mountain areas. Moreover, the aim of the subproject is to apply process-based, snow-hydrological models, to validate and develop them with their measurement results and to estimate the hydrological consequences of climate change. This implies also isotope hydrological analysis to quantify different kinds of runoff portions (precipitation, snow- und glacier melting, karst water) as well as downscaling of local meteorological parameters from large-scaled atmospheric data fields


Areas of Zugspitze and Sonnblick are ideal hydrological research stations

The environmental research station Schneefernerhaus (UFS) is located in the catchment area of the origin of Partnach, the only drain for meltwater of the Zugspitze area. Therefore, it suits well for the analysis of water balance. Moreover, there are different hydrological and climatological measuring stations in this region, which are developed and updated continuously. Thereby the scientists have access to divers data. Furthermore, the area is easy to reach throughout the year and in almost any weather. As the area of Sonnblick in Austria has the same excellent preconditions, the UFS-partners work closely together with the Sonnblick observatory, to compensate the deficits in the hydrological research of high mountain


Measurement and modeling generate important information about water balance

Based on measurement data, statistical analysis and model stimulations, scientists aim to analyze changes in local precipitation, snow accumulation and size of glaciers as well as melting processes and runoff in the Alps of Germany and Austria.

On the basis of gained knowledge, it is valid to generate concepts, models and processes, that can also be used in other areas. Moreover, scientists intend to estimate future developments of the water balance by means of the developed methods.

Under the leadership of the University Augsburg, precipitation, drain and snow cover parameters are registered at different measurement stations. Furthermore, snow cover and glacier measurement is performed by means of laser scanning and DGPS methods. The scientists of the LMU in Munich try to simulate as realistic as possible the processes in the snow cover like deposits, transport, evaporation and melting by means of computer models. Measurements and modeling go hand in hand and help to extend knowledge.

Furthermore, techniques for statistical downscaling should be developed to estimate central aspects of water balance on regional and local level, to estimate more reliably, how climate change influences the regional water cycle. The projections are especially important for the water and energy economy, the tourist industry as well as for planning tasks in authorities.


TP III/02: Influence of turbulences in mixed clouds in the Alpine region


Clouds are known for the largest uncertainties in global climate stimulation. Projections about future rainfall distribution are uncertain for many regions, if there will be more or less precipitation. Especially in isolated regions like the Alpine region that is simultaneously characterized by tourism, this is the case. Because tourism is mainly concentrated on outside activities, an improved rainfall forecast is of great importance, to regulate leisure activities in a better way respectively to adapt the infrastructure. 

Effects of turbulent flows on clouds

To get a better understanding of the precipitation formation in the Alpine region, the impact of wind and turbulences on clouds is analyzed in this subproject. Thereby, clouds are observed in more detail, in which solid and liquid phase coexist simultaneously due to increased formation of ice crystals or sleet. The turbulences of the air play an important role in the collection efficiency of falling cloud particles and thereby on the speed, with which precipitation particles can grow. Under the leadership of the Max-Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-organization, scientists work on three main questions within this subproject:

·        Is the formation of rain and snow in the Alpine region dependent on wind and turbulences?

·        How can the impact of wind and turbulences on precipitation efficiency be parameterized?

·        Which are the consequences of a changed climate on the precipitation efficiency of mixed clouds?


Measurements to forecast precipitation formation

Those processes are analyzed at the research stations Schneefernerhaus in Germany and Jungfraujoch in Switzerland. Both stations are high enough to perform measurement in mixed clouds. In their exposed location, the temperature is for a few months below the freezing point. Thereby ice crystals and cloud droplets can be observed locally. Moreover, those altitudes show great variability in turbulence intensity. 

At both research stations two measurement campaigns are performed for several weeks, followed by an evaluation period with parameterization. This parameterization can be applied, to test climate models, if precipitation efficiencies alter with a changed climate.


TP III/03: Impact of climate change on the Alpine water balance and environmental radioactivity

 Regions above 2.000 m a.s.l. are affected by climate change in a specific manner. Researchers predict more mild winter, higher precipitation rates as well as a shift in vegetation periods for the future. Depending on the type of precipitation, different amounts of radioactive materials, so called radionuclides are falling. By means of models, scientists can determine the transport and release of radionuclides and forecast possible radioactive contamination of surface-, ground- and drinking water.  


Radio-ecological processes with snow conditions are rarely explored

Besides rain, especially snow can carry many radionuclides from the atmosphere and emit it into soils, surface waters or vegetation. Like soil, also snow cover is a sink for radioactive materials, with the difference, that the properties of soil, to filter pollutants are absent in snow. Moreover, radionuclides are concentrated in the snow cover via melt and sublimation. When snow is melting in spring, huge amounts can be released and surface-, ground- and drinking water will be contaminated. This is also a risk for humans due to the increased radiation exposure.

Radio-ecological processes, that are accompanied by snow and the associated consequences of ionized radiation on human are rarely explored. Therefore, aim of this subproject is to analyze the impact of climate change on water balance and environmental radioactivity, as well as their consequences on humans. By means of those research results, reliable prognosis of radioactive contamination and strategies to avoid this are developed.


Measurement of environmental radioactivity

Under the leadership of the Institute of Radiation Protection of the Helmholtz Zentrum München, scientists register the current state of environmental radioactivity. Thereby deposit of natural and artificial radionuclides in snow at the Zugspitzplatt is measured monthly as well as a profile for the whole year. These results will be supplemented by data of release of environmental radionuclides, that are accumulated in the snow cover through collecting meltwater samples at the source Partnach. Finally, different winter scenarios are developed, which reflect possible consequences of climate change on precipitation, snow coverage, snow melting and consider their impact on entry and remain of radionuclides.

To register a bigger area within the Alpine region, data will be collected at the research station Sonnblick observatory in Austria and at Jungfraujoch in Switzerland in parallel.

Contact TP III / 01
Prof. Dr. Jucundus Jacobeit
Uni Augsburg-IGUA
Tel. +49 821 598-2662
Fax +49 821 598-2264

Contact TP III / 02
Prof. Dr. Eberhard Bodenschatz
Tel. +49 551 5176-300
Fax +49 551 5176-702

Contact TP III / 03
Dr. Kerstin Hürkamp
Helmholtz Zentrum München
Tel. +49 89 3187 2203
Fax +49 89 3187 3323

Dr. Jochen Tschiersch
Helmholtz Zentrum München
Tel. +49 89 3187-2763