Thursday, March 3, 2011

Researchers warn Zao's famous mountain 'ice monsters' could disappear

The famous winter scenery of trees covered with ice and snow to look like monsters (left) may disappear from here in less than 40 years due to global warming, researchers warn.

Trees covered with ice -- often referred to among tourists as "ice monsters" -- are today found at an altitude of over 1,550 meters on the 1,736-meter-high Mount Jizo in Yamagata. But they used to be found at much lower elevations about 80 years ago, a study group has announced.

Experts expect that by around 2050, if temperatures continue to rise at current levels, moisture in the air will no longer freeze to turn the trees into ice sculptures.

The research team, led by Yamagata University geochemistry professor Fumitaka Yanagisawa, recently observed ice-covered trees (right) around Jizo-Sancho ropeway station at 1,661 meters above sea level while measuring local temperatures. The study also covered documents, photographs and weather-monitoring records at the local meteorological observatory since 1914, when the spectacular view of trees covered with ice and snow was first discovered near the Zao hot spring resort on the mountain.

Based on the data, researchers concluded that rising temperatures have downsized the beautiful winter scenery significantly over the past 80 years.

According to researchers, trees covered with ice were found at elevations of 1,400 to 1,450 meters -- some 200 meters lower than today -- on the mountain 80 years ago. Forty years later, the scenery was only seen at 1,500 meters above sea level or higher. Today, tourists need to climb up to altitudes of 1,550 to 1,600 meters to see the natural ice sculptures.

The average temperature in the area in January has also risen by 2.38 degrees Celsius over 80 years, from minus 2.16 degrees Celsius for the period between 1926 and 1930. The temperature rose to an average of minus 1.48 degrees Celsius over the next 40 years, further increasing to 0.22 degrees Celsius over the four years to 2011.

The findings indicate the lowest altitude for the ice to form around the trees rose 100 meters or so as the average temperature rose by 1 degree Celsius over the course of 30 to 40 years. If temperatures in the region continue to rise at this rate, "trees will only freeze at an altitude of 1,700 meters or higher after three to four decades, in theory," Yanagisawa points out.

However, as trees do not grow at any altitude over 1,700 meters on Mount Jizo, people may no longer be able to see the sight of trees smothered in ice and snow by that time.

This winter, Yamagata experienced the heaviest snowfalls in the past five years, with January's average temperature registering minus 1.6 degrees Celsius. Trees were found frozen at an altitude as low as 1,500 meters.

However, Yanagisawa warns we cannot afford to be optimistic about the situation, saying, "Temperatures fluctuate, but they are rising gradually. The average temperature has risen over the past five years, too."

The Mainichi Daily News,"Researchers warn Zao's famous mountain 'ice monsters' could disappear",accessed February 28, 2011

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