A Slippery Slope Artificial Snow Harming Alpine Environment, Researchers Warn

Artificial snow may help Alpine ski resorts to fight the effects of climate change, but it also creates environmental problems of its own. Is summer tourism the only thing that can save the struggling resorts?

For amateur skier Ulrich Strasser, artificial snow is a good thing. "It's thicker and firmer, and therefore better for carving," he says.

But in his role as a scientist, he takes a very different view of the artificial white stuff. Covering entire slopes with manmade powder consumes an enormous amount of energy and water. And for Strasser, a geographer at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, that's a mountainous problem in a time of climate change .

Increasing numbers of ski resorts in the Alps have installed snow cannons so that the euros keep rolling in during snow-poor winters. In Austria, artificial snow is already used on 50 percent of slopes, says Christian Rixen of the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research  in Davos, Switzerland. In southern Tyrol, the figure is even higher, at 59 percent, while in the Alps as a whole it's 30 percent.

Artificial snow and its consequences is one of the many climate change-related topics that scientists are currently discussing at the European Geosciences Union  annual conference this week in Vienna. Researchers have been aware of the problem for some time. A year and a half ago, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a study on the consequences of global warming on the Alps. The worrying conclusion was that, in a worst-case scenario, two-thirds of all ski areas would be threatened.

Bavarian areas could be hit the hardest: Even a rise in temperature of just 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) would mean that 87 percent of slopes would no longer be classified as "snow reliable." The OECD defines snow-reliable areas as those that have around 30 centimeters (12 inches) of snow cover on at least 100 days in the year. In the Alps there are currently around 600 such areas. But an average temperature increase of just 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) could reduce that number to 500, the OECD warns. Every 1-degree Celsius increase after that would spell doom for a further 100 ski resorts.

"Everything under 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) is hit first," says hydrologist Carmen de Jong of the University of Savoy in France. Then areas above 1,200 meters start getting problems, she explains. Winter sport resorts don't have many options for coping with climate change. "The entire infrastructure, for example the lifts, would have to be rebuilt higher up the mountain -- and that's extremely expensive," de Jong says.

At lower altitudes, the only hope is snow cannons, which in some areas run non-stop as soon as the temperature hits minus 3 degrees Celsius (27 degrees Fahrenheit). To avoid running out of snow, they pump out as much of the white stuff as possible. "Snow cannons have become more and more intelligent," says de Jong. For example, when it's cold enough but the wind is blowing too hard, the machines stay off -- perfect artificial-snow management.

But the effects of the massive artificial snow output are worrying scientists. "Artificial snow melts two to three weeks later (than normal snow)," says Christian Rixen of the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research. Adding to the worry is the fact that artificial snow melt contains more minerals and nutrients than regular melt water. One consequence of the different composition is an alteration of the natural ground covering, as plants with higher nutritional requirements suddenly begin to dominate.

The use of artificial snow also interferes with the millennia-old Alpine water table. Water for snow production has to be collected in manmade reservoirs over the course of the entire year. A considerable amount of that water evaporates over time or when the artificial snow is produced -- and is therefore lost. Moreover, manmade reservoirs created in the mountains change the underground water table, as their bottoms are watertight and do not allow water to seep back into the ground. Not only this, but because artificial snow takes longer to melt, the flow of water into the valleys is postponed.

Will the Tourists Go For It?

The appearance of many winter sport resorts will also change if the average temperature continues to climb. The only snow in some areas would be white strips of piste running down from the top of an otherwise green mountain to the ski lift base station at the bottom. "Will the tourists go for it?" asks Carmen de Jong. She ventures a prediction: In larger areas, artificial snow will be more readily accepted than in smaller ski resorts, she believes.

The question of whether to produce snow artificially or not is also an economic one. "It takes 15 to 20 years for snow cannons to pay for themselves," de Jong says. Researchers should therefore calculate the limits of artificial snow production, ideally for the entire Alpine region, she says. However, she admits she doesn't know what the results of those calculations would look like. "A cost-benefit analysis is difficult," she says, explaining that one reason is the uncertainty regarding exactly what the actual rise in temperatures in the coming decades will be.

De Jong expressly warns that an excessive dependence on snow cannons would disrupt the Alpine ecosystem: "You can't practice winter tourism at the expense of the summer."

Nevertheless, researchers believe that summer tourism will play an increasingly important role for winter resorts. "Davos currently makes 60 percent of its annual turnover in winter, and 40 percent in summer," Rixen says. That ratio will change in the future, probably in the direction of a 50:50 split.

De Jong doesn't think the forced shift towards summer tourism is such a bad thing: "In 20 or 30 years, people will be coming to the cool mountains instead of heading to the hot Mediterranean." There, global warming will have brought about extremely high temperatures, which are bad for tourism, she says. "If you look at it this way, climate change is also an opportunity for the Alps."

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