Climate Action

Europe's ski season is getting cut short, but it's up to us to decide by how much

An archive picture shows the Dome and the Barre des Ecrins mountains in the French Alps, near Pelvoux, France, April 27, 2008. Seven climbers were killed and another was injured following an avalanche Tuesday September 15, 2015 in the Hautes-Alpes, the department prefect said. Picture taken April 27, 2008. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot - RTS17EY

The Alps could lose up to 70 percent of their snow cover by 2100. Image: REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot

J.D Capelouto
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Future of the Environment

With the European ski season drawing to a close next month, small communities reliant on tourism are starting to feel the effects of a changing climate that has led to shorter and more lackluster ski seasons, according to tourism and climate experts.

The Alps could lose up to 70 percent of their snow cover by 2100, but only if people let global warming exceed 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, Swiss researchers said.

If the world is able to keep global warming to below 2 degrees, the mountains would lose 30 percent of the snow.

The period when people are able to ski and snowboard is also expected to be cut shorter — the season could start two weeks or a month later than it currently does, the researchers said.

These shifts have already had effects on the Alpine tourism industry, and are expected to continue as natural snowfall decreases, researchers said.

“It’s more or less clear: less snow is not good for winter tourism,” Christoph Marty, a research scientist at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research and lead author on the study, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview Tuesday.

When less snow falls, resorts are forced to use water and energy to create artificial snow, blown out of snow cannons across the slopes.

“Producing artificial snow will always use water, and water in this cold season is not always available in the amounts you would like to use,” Marty said. The fake snow “needs resources, and this is not good for the industry”.

Graham Miller, the executive dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Surrey and an expert in sustainable tourism, said there is “no doubt that we’re seeing an impact of the changing climate on the ski resorts, particularly on the lower-altitude ones”, because it makes the winter season in general “more difficult to sell”.

It’s not only smaller mountains that are at risk — snow could become up to 40 percent less deep even on higher-altitude slopes if global warming continues unabated, Marty’s study found.

The climate scientists estimate that as the century progresses, precipitation will increase during the winter months, but so will global temperatures, leading to more rain where there is currently snow.

The extent of the damage on the slopes, however, is ultimately dependent on peoples’ ability to put a cap on global warming, the scientists concluded.

“We actually save quite a bit of snow if we are really able to reach this 2 degree goal,” Marty said.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, governments set a goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times, with an aspiration of just 1.5C (2.7F).

While climate change is expected to make resorts less profitable during the winter months, it has also forced them to adapt and diversify the attractions they offer, Miller said.

More Alpine destinations have begun offering a greater variety of summer activities like mountain biking and birdwatching in order to become less reliant on winter skiing, he said.

This may turn out to be a more resilient business model in the long run, Miller said, because they are “better utilising their physical infrastructure at other times of the year”.

Still, he said, the ski resorts have a long way to go in terms of evolving to be environmentally sustainable. It is not an overtly “innovative” industry, and the eco-tourism trend has not caught on widely, he added.

“If I wanted to ski sustainably, how would I do it?” he said. “That market solution hasn’t come forward.”

The study was published recently in The Cryosphere, a journal of the European Geosciences Union.

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