When hitting the slopes is a sin against nature

In so many ways, Alpine skiing is an assault on the natural world. This will only become more pronounced as our highlands see less and less snow as a result of the climate crisis. In the short run, a dying industry is trying to save itself by means that exacerbate its toll on the environment. Paul Hockenos reports.

Global heating is stealing snow from ski resorts around the world, even forcing lower-altitude ski localities to shutter up their facilities for good. With ski seasons becoming shorter and the snow scarcer – a phenomenon unfolding just about everywhere, but particularly acute in Europe – artificial snowmaking has become standard at all but the smallest facilities, blasting out man-made snow as fast as they can, draining over 150 gallons per minute – per machine – from the water supply. Many resorts use several hundred millions of liters a season to stay in business.

A Swiss study shows that a 100-day ski season – the average minimum required for a facility to break even – is virtually impossible at most Swiss resorts without artificial snowmaking. But snowtech isn’t a solution, it warns. “New snow guns may alleviate the situation to a certain extent,” say the researchers at the University of Basel, “but will not resolve the issue completely” since glaciers melting and snowfalls dwindling cannot be controlled by technology. Judging by one Swiss resort in the Sedrun region, in order to make a cost-effective ski season, water consumption for just this one resort is 300 million liters of water. It will double as winters get warmer, the study claims.

Looking further into the future, the study observes that: “If climate change continues unabated, [its] source of water will last until the middle of the century, at which point new sources will have to be exploited.” This, they warn, will eventually come into conflict with the nearby hydroelectric power plants – a problem not unique to Switzerland.

Number crunchers who’ve calculated downhill skiing’s carbon footprint come up with 50 kgCO2  a day, which includes everything: snow machines, snow grooming, lifts, gear, hotel, and gastronomy services, and of course the transportation emissions spewed out when winter sports fans descend on the slopes in gasoline and diesel-burning cars, and airplanes.

Emissions and water use are only the tip of the assault. The slopes themselves are hacked out of forested mountainsides that had once been replete with the woodlands’ natural inhabitants. The tree and bush growth held the ground soil tight when spring’s melt gushed down the peaks’ steep sides. Mass tourism in the winter adds injury to insult: the European Alps attract about 120 million visitors a year who pound the localities and all of their inhabitants, including the human ones, with their feet, garbage, exhaust fumes, and noise. In addition to skiing and snowboarding, there’s mass hiking, mountain biking, and cycling that take their toll.

Skiers and the industry are stirring

So grim has the scarcity of snow become that professional skiers are pleading with the industry to do something – and fast. In February, in an open letter, leading international skiers demanded that the International Ski and Snowboard Federation react to the conditions that have forced the cancellation of some of their competitions. “The seasons have shifted and in the interest of us all we need to adapt to those new circumstances,” wrote the letter’s authors.

Although the letter stopped well short of calling for fundamental changes to the sport or acknowledging its deleterious impact on the natural world, it posited an idea or two. The skiers asked for a change of schedule making the start of the season from late October to late November and the end of the season from mid-March to late April. A more productive suggestion: the athletes want a “geographically reasonable” race schedule that circumvents flying across the world multiple times.

The skiing industry has responded, too, though not in convincing ways. In the Alps, some resort owners are wrapping glacial packs in fleece blankets to slow the melt.

There is a responsible skiing lobby that claims that the bulk of the footprint stems from the journey to the slopes: the long car trips from Milan or Berlin or Warsaw, or much worse, the flights. The “top line figure [of 50 kgCO2] contains a lot of variability depending on individual choices, the most important of which is how you choose to travel to resort,” according to Ski Flight Free, a campaign to encourage skiers to travel to the Alps without flying. Using train and bus, they calculate, one can slash the volume of emissions by half over automobile users and over ninety percent over fliers.

Many resorts are putting up solar arrays, switching to more efficient snow guns, and new automated software programs enable resorts to “remotely control several hundred snow guns, each with its own built-in weather station. That means less startup time to pump water from a reservoir up the mountain to each snow gun,” according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.

CNN reports that in France the Domaines Skiable de France, the resort operators lobby arm, has pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2037, though it doesn’t share exactly how this will happen.

“The major impact of a ski resort on climate would be remaining silent on climate,” Auden Schendler of the Aspen Skiing Company told CNN. “The industry depends utterly on a stable climate and a pristine natural world,” Auden said.

Yes, that’s the paradox facing the industry. Its stop-gap solutions, however, won’t assuage it.

The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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