Thousands of skiers arrived in European resorts at the start of this season to be greeted by depressingly brown slopes, barely a snowflake in sight.
Far more depressing, however, was a global climate change report published earlier this month that proved beyond all reasonable doubt that this was not just a one-off bad winter.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, compiled by thousands of climate experts, concluded that global warming is affecting weather patterns in Europe and eventually snow will disappear from all but the highest mountains, wiping out skiing in many top resorts.
The IPCC confirmed the gloomy picture painted by the United Nations Environment Programme three years ago, which revealed the snow level in the Alps is slowly but surely creeping upwards, so that within 30 to 50 years resorts below 1,500 metres could be without snow.
It would mean an end to skiing in many destinations in Switzerland, Austria and Italy that are popular with Brits. For example, the Austrian resort of Kitzbuhel is only 760 metres above sea level, Zell am See 758m, Soll 703m, and Mayrhofen is a lowly 630m.
If the IPCC’s predictions are accurate, all could get less and less snow over the coming years and by the end of the century only the highest resorts in the Alps, such as Val Thorens in France and Zermatt in Switzerland, will have guaranteed skiing.
Whether this will spell economic disaster for the European ski industry, worth an estimated £30bn-plus each year, remains to be seen, but some resorts have proved this winter that it is possible to stay in business, even if it does not snow much.
Some 1,000 snow cannons have been able to make enough artificial snow to keep 40% of the runs covered and Grandvalira, the company that owns and manages the combined ski area, reckons it can keep on making snow until the end of the season.
As a result of this mammoth effort, the area was attracting an average of 12,000 skiers a day early in the season – around 15% fewer than during a normal year when it would have had 100cm to 180cm of natural snow.
“Without our snow-making efforts we wouldn’t have been able to open at all,” said a spokeswoman for Grandvalira. “By Christmas we’d had just 5cm of snow and yet we were able to open while other resorts in the Pyrenees were still closed.”
However, even with its hi-tech snow-making facilities, Grandvalira has not been able to make as much snow as it would have liked because the temperatures – which have remained weirdly spring-like for much of the winter – have often been too high. Also, it is conscious of the negative impact of snow cannons on the environment and so it has only made enough to cover a minimum number of runs.
Even so, Grandvalira does not accept that global warming is a threat to its business – at least, not in public. It does not deny that the climate is changing, but claims the snow is just arriving later.
“The winter is not going to disappear, it is just moving back,” said a spokeswoman. “Last winter we opened in December with a lot of snow.”
We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking these resorts are complacent about their future. Grandvalira is too heavily dependent on the ski industry for its bosses to simply stick their heads in the (artificial) snow and hope for the best.
In fact, their actions suggest they are well aware that climate change is likely to have a devastating impact on their business. Like other resorts across Europe, they are trying to build their way out of a potential disaster by expanding the ski area upwards to chase the snow, and are investing in more snow cannons to cover a greater percentage of slopes.
Last year, Grandvalira started building an entirely new ski resort, Portes des Neiges, just over the French border from Pas de la Casa, the highest ski area in Andorra. It opened last winter with a single red run down from Pas and, when it is finished in less than five years’ time, it will extend the total Grandvalira ski area by 54km and provide an additional 20 hotels.
Similar projects are under way in France, where Canadian developer Intrawest has built resorts at 1,950 metres in Les Arcs and at 1,700 metres in Flaine.
Most European resorts have invested heavily in snow-making facilities.
Grandvalira has put in 46 more cannons this winter and expects to grow the number by a further 10% next year. Val d’Isère, Tignes, Les Arcs and Courchevel in France and Sestriere in Italy have all recently invested heavily in snow cannons.
New technologies mean that cannons can churn out artificial snow even when it is as warm as three degrees. Modern cannons also use compressed air instead of chemicals, making them much more environmentally friendly.
“Savvy ski resorts are building reservoirs for snow making,” said Neilson overseas director Pip Tyler. “They wouldn’t be investing in this sort of technology if they thought it was going to get too warm to make snow.”
Tyler, Crump and co are keen to point out that this is not the first time that Europe has suffered bad winters – the Alps got barely any snow from 1988 to 1990 – and yet it has gone on to enjoy some epic seasons in terms of snowfall, most notably in the winter of 1999/2000.
However, one gets the sense that while ski operators are quick to dismiss the hype about global warming in public, they are secretly crossing their fingers. The fact that they are expanding into resorts that are most snow-sure – either with natural or artificial snow – shows that, in spite of what they say, they are concerned about the impact of global warming on some resorts.
“We’re always looking for resorts with reliable snow,” added Tyler, but he pointed out that that didn’t necessarily mean moving skiing to higher altitudes.
“Traditionally you went higher to find reliable snow but now it’s more complicated than that,” he said. “Latitude also plays a part so the Scandinavian countries. Sweden, Norway and Finland are looking good when it comes to snow-sure, and we’ve seen a huge increase in interest in these countries.”
Neilson has added Finland for next winter and Tyler said it was proving popular, but it should be pointed out that Scandinavia, like Europe, has suffered from a shortage of snow this winter and some Finnish resorts had to delay the start to their season.
Nevertheless, operators remain bullish about the future. “The poor season we are having at the moment has magnified the fear of global warming,” said Crump.
“But I’m confident that we will have plenty of snow next year and the short to medium term future of skiing is assured.”
How snow levels have declined across Europe
upper and lower slopes (cm)
|Alpe D’Huez, France|
|St Anton, Austria|
|Zell am See, Austria|
Information provided by the Ski Club of Great Britain
The winners and losers
An average temperature rise of 1C in the past 10 years has caused the snow line to recede up the side of most mountains by an average of 150 metres. Average temperatures could rise by as much as 5C by 2100, according to the IPCC.
From 1850 to 1980, glaciers in the Alps shrank 30% to 40%. Since 1980 a further 20% of the ice has disappeared. The summer of 2003 led to the loss of a further 10%. By 2050 about 75% of the glaciers in the Swiss Alps are likely to have disappeared, according to Paris-based think tank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Resorts that are most likely to survive global warming and remain snow-sure include Val Thorens, the highest resort in Europe, Tignes, Val d’Isère and Courchevel in France and St Moritz, Verbier and Zermatt in Switzerland.