Alpine skiing faces bleak future thanks to climate change

A ‘snowball’ pumps out water that will fall as artificial snow. Credit: Natalia Mikhaylina / shutter

Alpine skiing was introduced in the relatively late 1880s, and the first chairlift was developed in the winter of 1934 in the Swiss resort of Davos. pre-industrial.

With no reason to worry about the weather, tourism took off. Thomas Cook began offering skiing opportunities to the British in the first decade of the 20th century, and Alpine skiing became even more popular with its entry into the 1936 Winter Olympics, leading to massive growth in ski infrastructure. All this depended on a regular and predictable winter, when fresh snow filled the ski slopes. Ski resorts were able to promise their visitors smooth surfaces, safe upward transportation, and on-duty machines to reposition snow when needed.

But in recent years it has become more difficult to find cold and snow. The small French village of Saint-Firmin recently removed its chairlift (dating back to 1964) due to a lack of snow for over a decade. Seven out of eight early-season World Cup ski events have been canceled this year due to another very hot summer in the Alps, where record-breaking temperatures remind us that high-altitude environments are not immune to extreme heat.

Prophecies are not good. Average temperatures have increased by 2°C since pre-industrial times, roughly twice the global average. Because ice and snow are more reflective than the underlying rock and soil, less heat is absorbed on the ground and does not radiate away from the land. Warmer ground makes it harder for snow to collect and stay frozen, and so on.

2022 was a particularly grim year for Swiss glaciers, with extreme melting and the disappearance of all glaciers. Windswept Saharan sand even blanketed the mountain snows in mid-March, turning it into an eerie Mars-like orange, thus causing it to absorb more heat.

Long-term projections suggest that the Alps could generally be glacier-free each summer by 2100, with only chunks of high-altitude snow and ice remaining. To avoid this scenario, the world will need to significantly reduce emissions in the intervening period. Without snow, skiing and other winter activities cannot take place.

Experiment and innovate

With all this in mind, the Alpine countries had to experiment and innovate. In Switzerland, glaciers such as the Rhone glacier are covered with permeable fabrics to slow melting. However, they have their own consequences in terms of material degradation and local pollution.

Ski centers do not rest on their seasonal laurels. There is a growing interest in how to develop a carbon-neutral tourism industry in Alpine resorts, with far less emphasis on airplane and car travel. Due to the shortening of the ski season, some resorts are promoting alternatives such as winter hiking holidays, while others warn that skiing and snowboarding will increasingly protect the rich and privileged as resorts have to invest in more artificial snow production and snow protection. methods.

Winter events are crucial to the mountainous countries of Europe, and the Alpine Convention (which came into force in 1995) was an attempt by signatories, including Austria, France, Germany and small Monaco, to coordinate approaches to resources, transport and tourism. But record-breaking temperatures and retreating glaciers are creating tensions as water scarcity affects hydroelectric power generation capacity and disrupts water supplies for downstream users in the region. In the future, retreating snow and ice could become the object of controversy for their Alpine neighbors, who have come to terms with the idea that the abundant seasonal cycle of fresh and frozen water is no longer available.

The situation is bleak for skiing and winter sports in the European Alps. According to Swiss reports, for the 2020-21 season, 50% of the country’s ski slopes are covered with artificial snow created by spraying tiny water droplets into the air. It is very water and energy intensive. While there are now more energy efficient approaches to making snow, the process will always require plenty of water and temperatures low enough for the fog to freeze into snow.

It will be very difficult to save the winter economy in the Alpine resorts. Skiing won’t disappear overnight, but as far as we know it will be operating in a Europe where winter seems to disappear.

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