Home World Ski resorts battle for a future as snow declines in climate crisis | Climate crisis

Ski resorts battle for a future as snow declines in climate crisis | Climate crisis


After promising early dumps of snow in some areas of Europe this autumn, the pattern of recent years resumed and rain and sleet took over.

In the ski resorts of Morzine and Les Gets in the French Alps, the heavy rainfall meant that full opening of resorts was delayed until two days before Christmas, leaving the industry and the millions of tourists planning trips to stare at the sky in hope.

But no amount of wishing and hoping will overcome what is an existential threat to skiing in the Alps, an industry worth $30bn (£23.8bn) that provides the most popular ski destination in the world.

The science is clear, and is spelled out in carefully weighed-up peer reviewed reports. The most recent, this year, warned that at 2C of global heating above pre-industrial levels, 53% of the 28 European resorts examined would be at very high risk of a scarce amount of snow.

Scarce snow has been defined as the poorest coverage seen on average every five years between 1961 and 1990.

If the world were to hit 4C of heating, 98% of the resorts would be at very high risk of scarce snow cover.

Another study has revealed the way in which snow cover in the Alps has had an “unprecedented” decline over the past 600 years, with the duration of the cover now shorter by 36 days.

Some respond by holding on to the idea that skiing will and can survive if global temperatures are kept to the limits set by the Paris agreement, and if the industry adapts.

But rumblings of discontent at the lack of action to ensure the survival of the sport by the International Ski Federation (FIS) broke into the open this year.

The FIS was at the centre of a climate row in 2019 when Gian Franco Kasper, its president at the time, revealed himself as a climate denier in an interview, arguing that he would rather mingle with dictators than have to deal with environmentalists.

He subsequently left and was replaced by Johan Eliasch. But that has not taken the heat off the federation.

This year 500 professional winter sports athletes published a letter calling for greater climate action by FIS. They highlighted a competition schedule that forced skiers to take air flights backwards and forwards over the Atlantic from week to week, creating unnecessarily large carbon footprints, and called on the federation to open the season later and end it earlier to respect the changing climate.

This was followed in October by a petition calling for the federation to do more to tackle climate change, which has attracted more than 35,000 signatures.

The campaign wants the FIS to publish its own environmental impact with full transparency, move the race calendar by at least one month to respect the changing climate, reduce the requirement for air travel, and use its political influence to advocate for climate action at a governmental level.

The FIS said that as a signatory to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework (UNFCCC) it was committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 50% by 2030. “We are working on a sustainability plan that will see us collecting as much data during the upcoming winter season as possible to provide the most accurate estimate of our CO2 footprint.

“We have delayed the start of the season for one week and will continue to closely monitor whether we need to start the season even later.”

Dom Winter, of Protect our Winters UK, which is behind the petition, said the science showed the death of skiing was not inevitable if global emissions were reduced and that was motivating climate action in the winter sports community. “The future of winter sport relies on how well we reduce emissions in the coming decades,” said Winter.

He added: “Certainly at 2C the lower elevation resorts would be in big trouble. But there will still be places with natural snow in the Alps, so higher elevation resorts could survive. The concern is how expensive and elitist they might become.”

Small amounts of snowmaking would help to keep some resorts going, he said, particularly those at lower altitude. But snowmaking at scale will never be able to supplant real snow as it is too expensive and uses too much energy and water.

According to the most recent study, the use of snowmaking to achieve 50% snow coverage on pistes reduces the number of European resorts at high risk of loss of snow cover to 27% at 2C and 71% at 4C.

Although the same study shows emissions from snowmaking are small, at just 2% of overall resort emissions, artificial snow use at scale creates problems in energy and water use.

A study by the University of Basel found resorts located below 1,800 to 2,000 metres would have to abandon their lower slopes and increasingly rely on artificial snow to keep just their higher slopes open.

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The impact of artificial snow use for up to 100 consecutive days would raise water consumption by about 540m litres of water and pitch resorts against local communities because of competition over water use.

In the French Alps water consumption could increase ninefold by 2100 from this reliance on artificial snow, according to the study.

The federation said only by using carbon offsetting would it be possible to meet the 1.5c target of the Paris Agreement; and it had created the FIS Rainforest Initiative to do so.

So while some are pushing for the industry to do more to adapt to keep the sport alive, others are working to embrace a new future rather than concentrating everything on the one sport.

In Morzine, the non-profit sustainability Montagne Verte group is working at grassroots level to support a move to a low-carbon future in the area.

Cécile Burton, general manager of Montagne Verte, said: “Temperatures in the Alps are rising at more than twice the global average and that is not good news for an industry dependent on snow.

“Our approach is to focus on four-season tourism in the valley and to make the valley and mountains somewhere you can live all year.

“There is life after skiing but we have to adapt and we have to imagine what our future will look like. This is an area where you can climb, mountain bike, walk, or just be in the environment and that is all year round.

“We need to put more value in other times of the year not only from an environmental and sustainability perspective but from a human perspective because for somewhere to be a place you can live in all year round you have to have employment all year round.”

As well as working to envision and support a new future, the collective works with local politicians and the industry to push for policies that reduce emissions.

Most emissions from skiing come from the tourist flights to resorts, car travel in resorts, and energy used in the accommodation, so Montagne Verte is working on persuading politicians and businesses to move to car-free resorts.

The group recently took eight local mayors to the car-free resort of Zermatt in Switzerland to examine whether Morzine could follow where that resort had led.

The group has also succeeded in encouraging 100 businesses to become part of an Alpine express pass that offers discounts for snow passes, ski guides, spas massages and yoga to people who travel to their holiday by train.

Al Judge, president of the luxury chalet holiday company AliKats is trying to adapt for the day when the snow stops.

“We want to move the focus of our season from winter skiing,” said Judge. “Summer is our second biggest season, but we are trying to focus on getting a stronger demand for spring and autumn holidays so that when the snow does stop we have adapted to become a four-season, year round, business.”

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