HAVE MY SAY
By KLAUS DORING
WHILE most Asian countries keep on fighting with typhoons, heavy downpours, floods and landslides, Europe faces this: Snow comes later, melts earlier, and is not nearly as deep as it was 30 years ago. EU scientists are racing to help winter tourism regions adapt to climate change — but is man-made snow the answer?
Global warming has already shut down scores of European ski hills outside higher alpine zones.
“Last year, we had about 20 days, the year before, even fewer,” German mechanic Karl Oberreiter says, working on the control panel of a chairlift. “I don’t think we’ve had a full season since the 1980’s. There’s a point where you can’t do it anymore. After that, I don’t know.”
Oberreiter’s concerns echo across the across the heart of the Alps in Austria and Switzerland like a mournful yodel.
Winters are 10 to 30 days shorter than during the 1960’s. By 2100, there will be almost no snow below 1,200 meters — an average elevation of ski towns. The overall snow cover in the Alps will decline 70 percent, according to recent climate studies.
Preserving winter tourism and sports in the Alps beyond 2100 requires not just keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, but the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious — and many say, extremely unlikely — goal of 1.5 degrees.
Even if that were achieved, alpine winters are expected to grow ever-shorter, before potentially stabilizing toward the end of the century in a warmer and much less snowy state, says author Bob Berwyn.
With the future of the ski and winter tourism industry at stake, a team of international scientists, partly funded by the European Union, launched the new ProSnow research project in November.
Winter tourism and sports in the Alps are at risk! It aims to make resort towns in the Alps more resilient to climate change by accurately forecasting seasonal snowfall and temperatures. Combined with long-term climate projections, this information is hoped to help alpine communities plan for the future — even making up for nature’s shortfall with snow-making and snow farming.
The sad truth for many towns and ski areas below 1,000 meters is, in the coming decades, most of their white magic will come from the business end of industrial snow making machines.
Ski resorts around the world have already installed miles of water pipes and built reservoirs and pumps so they can make their own snow. Water is vaporized by thousands of high-pressure nozzles and freezes into a crystalline form that’s almost like the real thing.
Ski area operators have become snow farmers. Before the season starts, they use the snow guns to make big piles of snow in strategic spots on the mountain. Later, snow grooming machines distribute and smooth it out.
Conservation organizations like the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA), have fiercely criticized snow making because of its energy consumption and disruption of ecosystems like tundra and streams.
And some sustainably oriented mountain resort communities have rejected it in favor of a “soft tourism” path that’s supported by both the German and Austrian alpine clubs.
But ProSnow project leader Samuel Morin says snow making is here to stay, because resorts know that natural snow will be even less reliable in the coming decades.
“Snow reacts immediately to climate change, and since the early 1990’s, snow is no longer a certainty,” Morin said in an interview lately. “The project was initially triggered by long-term climate concerns. And there is more variability now. The question is, to what extent can snow-making and other technical measures counteract that?”
It’s a question that’s also pertinent in California, which right now is suffering floods and slum-slides after weeks of wildfires. Close to Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, about 300 miles north of Los Angeles, skier Jamie Shectman is waiting for snow after a bone-dry fall. He says you can’t take the ski industry in isolation. A summer of destructive hurricanes and wildfires shows that globally, climate change impacts are intensifying, threatening lives and food production. More snow making may not be the most appropriate response.
“There’s a total disconnect between our sport and what’s happening with climate change,” Shectman said in a TV interview last night. “We know it’s a high impact sport. From a karma perspective, the ski industry should be at the fore of the fight against global warming,” he says.
People are thinking now about creative solutions for green winter slopes. Instead of energy-hogging sources of greenhouse gas pollution, ski resorts should become self-sufficient producers of wind, solar, biomass and hydropower, Shectman says, describing his involvement in developing a solar power project at Mt. Abrams Ski Area, in Maine.
Climate change is probably out-pacing our technical capabilities to adapt, so slowing and stopping warming should be the priority. In just the past decade — the warmest in Earth’s recorded history — the snow line rose between 1,200 and 1,500 feet in the northern Sierra Nevada.
Of course, there are regional nuances to global warming impacts, and for some communities in the Alps, with access to renewable energy and high-elevation ski slopes, snow making could be an interim option to keep skiing alive. That includes the five alpine towns in France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany that are part of the ProSnow pilot project this winter. All are in the mid-elevation mountain belt more susceptible to global warming.
Austrian winters have shortened by 10 to 20 days since the 1950’s, and the maximum snow depth has declined at all elevations and nearly all regions of the mountainous country, with small localized exceptions.
The uncertainty, paradoxically, is also what, why proponents say energy-intensive snow-making such an indispensable part of the winter ski and tourism industry — at least for the foreseeable future.
The fact is: global warming and climate change affects all of us. Worldwide. Sad to say: it’s no more five minutes before twelve. It’s already several minutes after twelve!
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