What future does skiing have on a warming planet?

Skiing raises questions as humanity faces climate change. Will we still be able to ski in Europe in a world at +2°C? 3 scientists tackle a hot topic in The Conversation.

In recent months, the raison d’être of winter sports has seemed more threatened than ever by various controversies. Whether with the occupation of the Girose glacier, in the Écrins massif, in Isère by activists, to condemn plans for the construction of a new cable car, or questioning the organization of sports events in the pre-season after the partial destruction of the Théodule glacier, in Switzerland. Behind these militant actions lies the same question: what future does skiing have on a warming planet?

If France has seen some ski resorts close in recent decades due to a lack of snow or a sustainable economic model, most resorts instead hope to adapt to rising temperatures. But will the reproduction of recipes that have proven themselves in the past be able to face the challenges brought by a warming climate?

Through an unprecedented study of 2,234 winter sports centers in Europe, published in Nature Climate Change, we tried to measure the effects of global warming on the snow cover of the centers and the possible maneuvering options available to these centers.

This question does not only answer the concerns of amateur or professional skiers. Skiing is also an economic problem, the total turnover in Europe is estimated at 30 billion euros and in France alone, 120,000 jobs are directly and indirectly dependent on the skiing economy.

Half of the resorts would lack snow at +2°C global warming

A global phenomenon, climate change does not spare any center, but not all mountain ranges are affected with the same intensity or the same speed, and the capacity to limit the effects of these changes by producing snow is limited, also very contrasting. We estimated the impacts of climate change on winter sports resorts based on the potential level of global warming using the “burning carbon” graphical representation commonly used in IPCC reports.

At +2 °C of global warming compared to the reference period 1850-1900, i.e. the level of warming expected in the mid-21st century, 53% of European-scale stations are at risk of very high levels of low snowfall, without snow production. We rate the risk of low snowfall based on the frequency of snow conditions considered the worst, with those occurring on average every fifth season from 1961-1990, the golden era of resort development. A “very high level of risk” corresponds to a return of these adverse conditions every second season.

At the national scale, however, we see contrasting differences: in the French Alps, this proportion concerns a third of the stations, while in the Pyrenees and in the Franco-Swiss Massif Central, 89% and 80% of the stations concerned are at a very high risk of light snow.

At +4°C global warming, 98% of European resorts are affected by a very high risk of low snowfall, with no snow production. At this level of warming, the climate leaves little room for adaptation to winter sports centers.

Artificial snow will not be a miracle solution

In order to adapt to the trend of decreasing snow cover, one of the most promoted solutions today is the production of snow, which some refer to as “artificial snow”, others as “artificial snow”. Making snow involves throwing micro-droplets of water into the atmosphere so that they freeze before falling to the ground. The snow obtained in this way, composed of small balls of ice, is a suitable material for the production of a mat.

In the past, snow production focused primarily on limiting the impact of natural fluctuations in snow cover from one season to the next. Today, snow is produced mostly before the season, without knowing the weather conditions of the coming winter, then if necessary more precisely between the Christmas and winter holidays, which is crucial for economic activity, as well as just to ensure the opening of the ski area until the end of the season.

Like natural snowmaking, snow production is affected by increasing temperatures, as snow production requires sufficiently cold weather conditions. This double pressure leads to increasing investments to guarantee the possibility of producing snow in sufficient quantities, thus increasing the dependence of mountain resorts on snow tourism. The risk associated with this dynamic is maladaptation, i.e. an adaptation solution that responds in the short term to problems exacerbated by climate change, but leads to structurally increased vulnerability to risks.

For ski tourism, this corresponds to a situation where the economic weight of the invested investments comes up against the repetition of unfavorable operating conditions that do not allow supporting the production tool in the long term. Ultimately, the danger is reaching a tipping point, with the collapse of the winter sports economy impacting local development dynamics.

Not all ski resorts will be able to adapt in the same way

If the resorts are unevenly affected by climate change, they can also more or less adapt to rising temperatures by producing snow. At +2°C of global warming, snow production, if implemented on 50% of the slope surface, allows reducing the proportion of resorts exposed to very high risk to 7% and 9%. Alps and Pyrenees, while in the central mountain massifs this proportion is 56%. These differences are even more pronounced at higher levels of warming.

However, it should be remembered here that if the amount of snow cover is a determinant of the socio-economic viability of a winter sports resort, it does not in itself represent a guarantee of the sustainability of the resort: d There are other determining criteria, e.g. the state of the ski lift fleet, methods of promotion/marketing or accommodation capacity and their attractiveness. Therefore, we cannot directly infer from the numbers characterizing the risk of low snowfall, the proportion or number of resorts that are likely to end their skiing activities.

Ski station. // Source: Canva

Furthermore, although snow production has a substantial positive impact on improving the operating conditions of ski areas, it is not necessarily a general solution, applicable in the same way regardless of the ski area. Our study also shows that the marginal gain in areas covered by snowmaking facilities does not always meet expectations.

With more than 50% of the area covered, the efficiency of the additional production means often appears to be less than the benefit of the first investments, and the desire for the equipment must be viewed with even more attention, especially in relation to the costs it entails: economic for the operator, but also ecological , both with regard to pressures on ecosystems, water and electricity needs, but also according to the choice of resource allocation and adaptation of activities other than those related to the ski area.

Carbon is released when snow is made

In addition, snowmaking is not without carbon emissions, a component that must therefore be kept in mind before implementing this technique as the ultimate response to snowpack reduction.

We therefore also calculated the necessary requirements for water, production and the resulting energy demand, the carbon footprint of the electricity used to produce snow. In the reference period (1961-1990), the total amount of snow produced on the slopes covered by the devices represents 13% of the total precipitation that falls annually on the same slopes. Given the 50% coverage of tracks by production equipment, the total volume should see growth of 8% to 25% depending on the country at a warming of +2°C, more at a more pronounced warming.

Additionally, this demand tends to shift over time with lower production in November due to the reduction of cold windows favorable for early winter production. Thus, it is likely that the services provided by snowmaking will not be what they have been in the past, risking further weakening of the snowpack during the end-of-year holidays.

In all cases, the total volume of potentially mobilized water remains modest, and much of this water is returned to watercourses during the melt. However, this does not anticipate the delicate situations at the local scale depending on the use (including ecosystem needs) and resource extraction methods and the evolution of mountain hydrology in relation to climate change and the evolution of the cryosphere contribution. .

Similarly, the carbon footprint of the electricity used to produce snow, on the order of 80 kt CO eq.2 and with growth comparable to that of water demand as a function of warming remains limited, although it varies widely depending on the energy mix of different countries (for example Norway with a +30% increase in gas) greenhouse emissions at +2°C maintain one of the lowest carbon feet in all climates combined, compared to the carbon intensity of current energy mixes).

Let’s not forget the transport and accommodation of skiers

However, it is not possible to separate snow production from the tourism activity that justifies it, even though it is inherently responsible for only a few percent of the carbon footprint of a winter sports tourist destination dominated by transport and accommodation for skiers (e.g. the entire tourism sector accounts for 11% of emissions of greenhouse gases at the national level (8% at the global level).

In connection with climate change, this raises the question of the development of mobility due to the lack of ski areas and the need to ensure the functioning of ski areas, the management of which is increasingly complex. and critical with regard to the deterioration of natural snow conditions.

Indeed, a related risk lies in the increase in carbon emissions from ski tourism, which justifies increasingly distant journeys. But is it compatible with the future of this activity and the economic and social development of mountain areas particularly vulnerable to biodiversity erosion and global warming? Our study shows the need to combine adaptation and decarbonisation in the tourism sector without focusing exclusively on one dimension of this grand challenge.

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Hugues François, Tourism Research and Information Systems Engineer, Inra; Raphaëlle Samacoïts, Climatology and Climate Services Engineer, Météo-France and Samuel Morin, Researcher and Director of the National Meteorological Research Center (Météo-France – CNRS), Meteo France

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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