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Sunday, April 14, 2024

It’s Getting Too Hot to Make Snow

For dozens of Alpine ski resorts, this past Christmas and New Year season has been a literal washout. Very little snow fell in December. Then rain arrived, wiping many slopes back to green and brown turf. Frustrated skiers Googled the forecasts, glimpsed snowless mountainsides on live videofeeds, and canceled their bookings. Dozens of pistes, and even some entire resorts, remained closed as 2023 dawned.

Among those that soldiered on was Laax in the Swiss Alps, about 60 kilometers from the Italian border. The resort, with roughly 200 kilometers of ski runs, has been planning for snow shortages like this for some time. An arsenal of snow guns came to the rescue.

Huge snowmaking machines, some mounted on towers, sprayed Laax’s hillsides with artificial snow all through the night in late December, with the necessary water delivered to some of the resort’s higher altitudes via a special pipe installed last summer. Laax has 430 snow machines, some of which are mobile. At times, all of them were running simultaneously, explains Corsin Clopath, head of piste at the resort. “I am happy with the guns,” he says. “But we need more.”

There’s a big question over whether it’s viable to rely on snow machines in the long term—especially since rising global temperatures are expected to threaten more ski resorts in years to come. Snowmaking requires a lot of energy, which makes upping use of the devices controversial and expensive. A 2011 review of Swedish snowmaking found that the amount of electricity required to make just 2 meters cubed of artificial snow was, on average, equivalent to what a typical British household would use in a day. Clopath says Laax uses 100 percent renewable energy, but it still has to pay for that.

Artificial snow is also different from the real thing. The guns blast water droplets into the cold air, which freeze. Moisture in the atmosphere then condenses and freezes around those droplets, growing the snow particles. This yields a particularly compact covering of snow, which experienced skiers can distinguish from the real thing, though Clopath says the attributes of artificial snow came in handy in recent weeks. The rain tended to trickle off the compact surface rather than penetrate into the snow and melt it.

A bigger long-term issue is that snow guns can’t just be turned on whenever you want—they need the right operating conditions. Unsuitable weather meant that there was only a short time over Christmas during which it was cold and dry enough to run the contraptions, Clopath notes. Poor snowfall at Christmas is far from unheard of in the Swiss Alps, but it’s the noticeably warm temperatures and lack of suitable snowmaking periods that are really challenging resorts now, he says: “We had two really good weeks to produce the snow, and after that it was too warm.” In the end, Laax managed to cover around a third of its pistes with artificial snow. Natural snow, present only at higher latitudes at first, eventually began falling and settling on the lower slopes, too.

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Ted Shepherd, a climate scientist at the University of Reading in the UK, knows what it’s like to arrive at a ski resort only to find that the snow is holidaying elsewhere. This Christmas, he went to Switzerland with his wife and her family. “She always likes to go skiing, but we couldn’t, really,” he says, recalling one resort where skiing was possible at higher altitudes—but people were queuing for 45 minutes either to get the cable car up to the slopes or down again once they’d finished their runs. “It’s just getting worse and worse,” he says of climate change’s impact on European skiing. 

In the face of the warm winter season, it’s time for the ski tourism industry to take climate change seriously, says Rob Stewart of Ski Press, a PR firm. “These kinds of unusual weather events seem to be happening more regularly,” he says, recalling how he used to climb and walk on certain glaciers 25 years ago that have since been hit by rising temperatures. “They’re not just melting—they’re gone,” he says.

And although he admits that the skiing community has perhaps been “a bit head in the sand” about climate change in the past, he argues this has changed, and that resorts have little option but to adapt to the changing world in which they operate. But given snowmaking’s need for optimal conditions—and sizable costs—relying on snow guns isn’t necessarily the way forward. 

Shepherd points out that in addition to being energy-hungry, artificial snow requires significant amounts of water, a resource that is expected to become scarcer. Plus, there is the sheer cost of running hundreds or even thousands of these machines. Despite recent energy price hikes in Europe, Stewart says ski destinations he has asked about this have not reported financial difficulties associated with snowmaking. Clopath adds that Laax was protected from bill shock thanks to a long-term contract with the resort’s supplier, which fixes its energy tariffs until 2024. “We are hopeful that when we have to buy in 2024, that the prices are going down,” he says.

Other ski resorts, though, are unable to call on Laax’s armies of snowmaking machines, and so are adapting in other ways. Pays de Gex, in the French Jura Mountains, has suffered at altitudes lower than 1,700 meters in recent weeks. Lacking the white stuff, it instead offered travelers mountain biking, paragliding, pony trails, and two new activities—a toboggan on rails and a huge zip line.

“I think it’s the future of this mountain,” says Bruno Bourdat, director of the tourist office, suggesting that the resort will have to get used to offering a range of alternatives when skiing isn’t possible. He notes that Pays de Gex has snowmaking machines, but that conditions don’t always favor their use.

The other solution is simply to ski elsewhere. While the Alps have been tested over the past month or so, there has been very good snow at skiing locations in Norway, Japan, and parts of North America, notes Stewart. In fact, some ski resorts that tend to be especially cold this time of year might actually get more snow in the future, argues Shepherd. The sweet spot for snowfall is in the –10 to –1 degree Celsius range, and warming temperatures may move new areas into this window. “You either move up the mountain to get to lower temperatures, or you move north,” Shepherd says.

The signs that skiing is changing are everywhere, no matter where you look. Even the frequent flying and conspicuous consumption that have—rightly or wrongly—been a stereotype of the pastime might melt away as the industry strives to remain culturally acceptable in the Anthropocene, Shepherd suggests. It could mean a new outlook on nature and how we revel in it. 

And ski resorts, no matter the depth of their pockets or the size of their snow cannons, cannot hold back rising tides. As Shepherd puts it: “Just trying to fight the weather, I think, is going to be a losing battle.”

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