Climate change is going to affect all facets of our lives, with ski slopes already feeling its effects. With higher temperatures resulting in less snow, the future of skiing may be quite different from our experience today. From artificial snow to skiing indoors, Patrick Thorne, also known as The SnowHunter, provides his view on the future of skiing.
The past four years have ranked as the world’s hottest since the eighth century, and 2018 is looking likely to be the fifth. For snow-sports enthusiasts, the long-term prospects for skiing do not at first glance look good.
Resorts continue to experience enormous fluctuations in snowfall, and some are still reporting record years. In Switzerland, for instance, January 2018 was one of the snowiest on record, with resorts such as Zermatt all but cut off from the outside world as the huge snowfalls set the avalanche danger scale at max. Yet just 14 months earlier, in December 2016, Switzerland’s Jungfrau ski region, home to the classic resorts of Mürren, Wengen and Grindelwald, experienced the driest month since records began more than a century ago.
Events such as these fit the scenarios forecast by scientific studies of increasing extremes in weather coupled with an underlying trend for warmer temperatures.
Other evidence is visible in rapidly declining sizes of glaciers. Even the former ‘highest ski resort in the world’ at Chacaltaya in Bolivia, more than 5,000 metres up in the Andes, closed in 2012 when the once-permanent snowfield it occupied melted away.
Ski resorts respond
However, there is also good news. Ski areas worldwide are responding fast, taking innovative steps to change the way they manage their resources and broaden their offerings to support the long-term future of these treasured places – with considerable success.
Austrian resort Kitzbühel is a case in point. Back in 2006, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) sponsored a major study into climate change that predicted, among its findings, that ski seasons would become shorter, snowfall less predictable, and that lower-altitude areas would be affected sooner than higher areas.
Media focus immediately fell on Kitzbühel, one of the lowest-lying major ski areas in the Alps, its resort at 800 metres above sea level and highest lift just below 2000 metres. To put that in context, at the other extreme Val d'Isère in France lies at 1,850 metres with lifts ascending to 3,550 metres. At the time Bruno Abegg, a researcher at the University of Zurich who was involved in the OECD report told The New York Times: “Let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t invest in Kitzbühel.”
Kitzbühel, which hosts the world’s biggest annual ski race, the Hahnenkamm Downhill, hit back, publishing snowfall data from the previous 50 years showing little sign of decreasing volume.
In recent years it has also managed to extend its season to become the longest in the Alps for a resort without a glacier, running for 200 days – more than half the year) – from mid-October to early May. It achieves this, in part, by the use of snow farming.
Farming for the future?
Snow farming is a growing practice responding to the dual pressures on ski resort operators of the prospect of diminishing snow cover and an increasingly fickle market able to check how snowy slopes are looking instantly via social media.
For a resort, failing to present pristine white slopes from day one of the ski season is not an option.
As a result, an increasing number of resorts are looking to manage their ‘white assets’ more efficiently rather than relying on it arriving in abundance on schedule each autumn from the skies, with an increasing number turning to a technique known as “snow farming.”
Essentially this involves piling up tonnes of snow at the end of one ski season in a shady area, covering it with giant tarpaulins and sometimes sand or sawdust, and leaving it to sit out the hot summer months.
There is reported to be limited snow melt, with perhaps a quarter of the volume melting away, and the quality of the snow in the autumn is reported to be good having ‘dried’ through the summer. A growing list of resorts are doing it, including famous names like Courchevel, Davos and Kitzbühel, despite the effort and cost, which one resort put at around £125,000.
Once spread back out on the slopes as temperatures drop each autumn it forms a base for fresh snowmaking and hopefully fresh natural snowfall too, meaning the season can get going sooner than it otherwise could.
A similar business model is the use of so-called ‘All-weather snowmaking’ machines which make snow inside a large articulated unit from air and water which can then be sprayed out on the slopes whatever the temperature.
The problem with both systems is they can only cover small areas of ground compared to the size of a conventional ski area, some of which cover thousands of hectares, but that may change.
“Looking 15-20 years into the future, the key difference in the Alps is likely to be advances in artificial snowmaking, that use less water and, crucially, are able to operate at higher ambient temperatures,” confirms Richard Sinclair, MD of leading online ski travel agents SNO.co.uk.
“There are already snow cannons that can operate above freezing, so the key will be to make them cost less to operate. With snowmaking now happening in mid-summer in places, speculation about turning previously non-snowsport hills/mountains into ski runs/resorts has already begun.”
From white to green
Elsewhere, resorts are investing heavily in green technology and becoming carbon-neutral destinations. A study of 250 of the world’s leading ski areas by advocacy group Save Our Snow found that more than a quarter are already 100% carbon neutral, with many of these generating wind or hydro energy on site and in some cases exporting excess green energy to the grid.
In February, Squaw Valley in California, host of the 1960 Winter Olympics, announced that it will use 100% solar energy for its operations from this winter season onward.
The US resort will pay an extra $325,000 on its electric bill in the first year to help accelerate the transition to affordable renewable energy – both for the resort itself and 49,000 people living in the region.
Many larger resorts have specialist staff and complete environmental procedures in place to put fighting climate change at the heart of all they do. At Swiss resort Laax, its policy is called ‘Green Style’ and it is managed by Reto Fry, environmental officer for Weisse Arena Gruppe.
“Even though a big part of our ski area is at currently snowsure levels above 2000m above sea level, we are already experiencing the consequences of climate change and winter seasons are getting shorter,” says Mr Fry. “For this reason we strive to become a 365-day tourist destination.”
Investing in year-round facilities
One factor in the future of mountain resorts is the growth potential for summer business. The long talked-of dream of making mountain communities more balanced year-round destinations appears to be coming true, as increasing numbers of people seek the cooler air of the mountains.
“If climate change does continue on, we are sure skiing will still be possible in the 2030s in Kitzbühel, but of course, in any case summer holidays in Alpine regions are getting more and more important,” said Sylvia Brix of the resort’s Bergbahn AG lift operator.
Ski resorts are investing heavily in year-round outdoor attractions including zip wires and mountain coasters – a kind of downhill roller coaster accessed by a ski lift.
Resorts are also taking advantage of their natural assets – lifts to high places – to attract thrill seekers year-round. There has been a spate of openings of high altitude viewing platforms and even wobbly pedestrian suspension bridges in the Alps in recent years, for those with a head for heights.
At the Auiguille du Midi, 3,842m up above Chamonix, it is possible to step out into a glass box suspended more than 1,000m above the mountainside. And both Tignes in France and the Dachstein Glacier in Austria now offer a James Bond-style ride on the roof of a cable car (albeit in a safer ‘balcony’ fixed on top!).
Other resorts have gone further still. The French ski resort of Avoriaz has the same parent company as UK holiday park operator Centre Parcs, and has brought some of the same technology to the ski slopes. In 2012 it opened the first mountain-top indoor water park, the tropically themed Aquariaz, beneath a giant glass dome. Along with a huge range of indoor water fun activities and a spa, the park is home to over 1,500 tropical plants and 183 tropical trees.
The biggest spend by resorts, in the range of tens of millions of Euros, is invested in the type of big, comfortable gondola lifts that can be used all year round by everyone from skiers and mountain bikers to families with babies in pushchairs or wheelchair users. Huge sums are also being invested in destination-style indoor swimming pool and spa complexes.
These facilities all have twin benefits for the resorts and holidaymakers alike. For the resorts they broaden their appeal winter and summer. For visitors, they provide lots of additional options for a more rounded winter holiday than just skiing and snowboarding, making destinations more appealing for groups with non-skiers in the party.
Is the future under a roof?
Many people still think of Ski Dubai as the only indoor snow centre in the world, but in fact more than 100 of these facilities have been built in more than 30 countries on six continents over the past three decades.
In recent years construction has taken off, with China alone building more than 20 snow centres, including the world’s biggest, which opened in the north-eastern city of Harbin in 2017. Described as a complete ‘indoor ski resort’, it covers 80,000 sqm and holds half a dozen runs for different ability levels. The rumoured price tag was around €4 billion.
Indoor runs are also becoming ever-longer, with slopes up to 2km in length so far proposed. The Meydan One complex currently under construction in Dubai originally proposed a 1.2km long indoor slope, although reports indicate this has since been reduced to 750 metres – although this would still be the world’s longest yet.
The longest existing slopes are the 620m-long slope at Amneville in northern France, and the 640m-long run of the AlpinCenter at Bottrop in Germany.
Although many skiers dismiss indoor snow centres as offering too little skiing to be taken seriously, these facilities have made it possible for many people to try snowsports locally and affordably. In some countries people have seen, touched and tasted snow for the first time thanks to one of these facilities. Trade body Snow365 has calculated more than 10 million people have learned to ski in them and gone on to provide business for the conventional ski industry thanks to them.
A number of indoor snow centres have become virtually green energy self-sufficient by covering their vast roofs with solar panels. One of the largest, SnowWorld Landgraaf in The Netherlands, completed a project to put 8,000 panels on its roof earlier this year, one of Europe’s biggest solar power projects.
Several ski resorts have considered building indoor snow centres as part of their slope offering, with French ski resort Tignes announcing plans for a 400m-long slope at a cost of €62m in 2016. Construction is yet to commence.
Ski holidays in the 2050s
The future of the ski holiday therefore looks set to be influenced by a number of factors. As glaciers melt away and snow cover is less reliable, ski resorts are expected to become ever more innovative in providing snow for their winters.
Snow-making technology is expected to continue to advance, with ‘all-weather snow-making’ systems further improving capacity. Snow will still melt, but resorts may be able to produce enough of it to keep slopes open. At the same time, indoor snow slopes and artificial-surface all-weather slopes are anticipated to continue to expand, bringing the snow, albeit man-made and indoors, closer to more of us. And all of this technology is likely to be powered by renewable energy, often generated on site.
Finally, ski resorts will likely continue to look beyond snow, targeting growth in their summer businesses, and offering a wider range of options than ‘just’ snowsports during winter seasons, as we all demand more from our precious winter week in the mountains.
Indeed, perhaps by the 2050s we won’t need snow for skiing at all.
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