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Whether we meet the Paris Agreement’s goals or not, winter is in for a tough century. In the Alps, a number of ski destinations are taking steps to prepare for winters without sufficient snowfall.

In the Alps, there has long been a simple rule of thumb: The ski season needs to be at least 100 days long in order for a ski lift to be profitable over the long term. This would be based on at least a 30 cm (12 inches) snow base on the slopes, and perhaps the occasional warmer winter every now and then. But warm winters are becoming more and more frequent. Instead of snow, rain is falling at ever higher elevations, and the line for where snow cannons can be operated continues to creep up on the slopes.

In 2007, approximately 90% of the Alps’ nearly seven hundred ski resorts were estimated as being snowsure, according to the hundred days rule. However, an OECD report from the same year revealed that only half of the ski resorts in Switzerland at lower elevations would be snowsure if the snow line were moved up less than 300 meters (1,000 feet). There are many indications that this is likely to happen, and the other Alpine countries have more low-lying ski areas than Switzerland.

In the United Nations Paris Agreement, which entered into force in November 2016, the signatory countries agreed to keep global warming under 2° C, but preferably 1.5° C. The latest UN report keeps these goals in place, however, there are few signs indicating that the 1.5° C target will be achieved. According to research conducted at EPFL, the Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, the 2° C scenario means that approximately 40% of ski resorts in the Alps will not be able to manage over the long term. If the 2° C goal is exceeded, then even more resorts will of course be affected. According to Austrian climate researchers, approximately half of the ski resorts in Tyrol – the cradle of the downhill skiing – will not have enough snow in 2050. While other Austrian studies have been a little more optimistic, most experts estimate that by the end of the century only 10–15% of Tyrol’s ski resorts will have enough snow unless we start drastically reducing our current carbon dioxide levels.

Climate uncertainty hinders investments

The decisive factor is the elevation of the ski areas. Already, lower-lying resorts all around the Alps are struggling with financial problems. Investing in snowmaking is expensive – and it can be risky. Although artificial snow is durable and withstands sunshine and mild weather better than natural snow, temperatures below freezing are required in order to operate the snow cannons.

Several Swiss banks have stopped lending money to ski lift facilities below an elevation of 1,500 meters (approximately 5,000 feet). It is believed that snowsure ski resorts at high elevations will be able to raise their prices as downhill skiing becomes a more exclusive activity. But the uncertainty surrounding climate change means that more and more ski resorts are instead investing in year-round activities and experiences that are not as dependent on snow.

Mountain biking, electric bikes and hiking trips can be safer sources of income, along with shopping, spas, food and indoor ski resorts. Tignes, a high elevation ski resort in France, decided to invest in an indoor skiing center after the slopes of the Grand Motte glacier shrank by 30%.

Pioneering ski resorts

Many ski resorts, both in the Alps and other mountainous regions around the world, have long turned a blind eye to the problems. But in recent years, risk awareness has increased in many places – as has the desire to reduce their own emissions. Ski resorts such as Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, Wolf Creek and Aspen in the United States have committed to drastically reducing their greenhouse gas emissions – above all by focusing on solar energy. The Finnish ski resort Pyhä is pursuing the same strategy and is completely “carbon neutral” today.

Ski resorts in the Alps are also adapting, particularly in Switzerland, with the foremost among these being the town of Laax. Although Laax had previously been known as a Mecca for freestyle skiing – with Europe’s longest half-pipe – today, more is being written about its comprehensive sustainability work that deals with more than just greenhouse gases. Weisse Arena Group, the company running the ski resort, launched the Greenstyle Project back in 2010, which aims to find ways to be more ecological.

A holistic approach

Today, the electricity in the Laax valley is generated by hydro and solar power provided by the local Flims Electric company. The resort has also installed solar-panels on the roofs and façades in the village, which are used to provide electricity for the electric car charging stations. The innovative approach has already earned the resort Swiss and European solar accolades. A local wind farm project on the Vorab Glacier is also in the works, and the resort advises that its guests arrive by public transportation.

There is also a non-profit Greenstyle Foundation in Laax that works with a crowd-sourcing principle and funds eco-projects in the area. Guests of the resort can also participate via donations, which the Weisse Arena Group will then triple. According to Reto Fry, who has been in charge of the Greenstyle Project, approximately 75% of the emissions of a resort are caused by transportation.

However, finding new ways to travel to ski resorts in the Alps is not an easy task.

“I have actually been looking for a travel agency that offers sustainable vacations, but I haven’t found any,” says Reto Fry.

Jaakko Järvensivu
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