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Europe's snowless ski resorts predict winter in a changing climate

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A man goes Nordic skiing despite the lack of snow in La Feclaz, in the French Alps, on Jan. 5. (Laurent Cipriani/AP)

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LES GETS, France – With kids running around inflatable cacti and tanned mountain bikers racing under blue skies, the French village of Les Gets looked like an enviable summer vacation destination last week. The problem is that no one here asked.

Not in the dead of winter, when this alpine ski resort should be covered in thick layers of snow, ice and even more snow.

But instead of ice-covered chalets, visitors to this village at an altitude of nearly 4,000 feet have found muddy paths and broken lifts in recent weeks as Europe’s unseasonably warm winter closed half of France’s slopes, forced the cancellation of winter sports and left leisure skiers clamoring for refunds. It could just be a preview of things to come in a warming world, researchers worry, averaging temperatures rising twice as fast in parts of the Alps than elsewhere.

While some tourists in Les Gets were quick to adapt to the winter heatwave – renting bikes instead of skis, ordering cold beer instead of mulled wine – many locals struggled to quell the creepy feeling that this could be the beginning of the end of skiing. in their part of the Alps and life as they know it.


Sources: Planet, OpenStreetMap

JANICE KAI CHEN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Sources: Planet, OpenStreetMap

JANICE KAI CHEN/THE WASHINGTON POST

“This is more than ‘warming up,’” said Fabrice Dumaine, 52, who was waxing a pair of skis at the rental shop he operates, next to a vending machine that sells cheese for raclette, a traditional après-ski meal. “Usually it is -5 degrees [23 degrees Fahrenheit] here at this moment, and now it’s 15 degrees [59 degrees Fahrenheit]. Even some summers are cooler.”

Hot weather pushes Northern Hemisphere snow cover near record lows

In the snowless weeks this winter, Dumaine has lost about a third of its usual business.

“What’s scary,” he said, “is the uncertainty.”

Many residents hope that this year could still be an outlier. Even in the 1960s, some recall, there were weeks without snow in Les Gets. Here and in many other alpine resorts, cooler temperatures and snow have finally returned over the past four days.

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But researchers say the trend at resorts like Les Gets is clear. In the next seven to 17 years, skiing will become impossible “in the mid-altitude mountains, and snow cover will inexorably decrease in the higher parts of the ranges,” said Magali Reghezza-Zitt, a French geographer. By some estimates, by the end of the century, snowfall may have decreased by between 30 and 70 percent in the Alps, impacting even hitherto safe resorts.

The past few weeks have been “a stunning example of what the average future could look like,” said Robert Steiger, a tourism researcher at the University of Innsbruck in Austria.

In Alpine cities, recreational skiing carries great cultural value and economic weight. Since the resorts were massively expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, winter sports have been central to the region’s economy. Nearly half a million permanent or seasonal jobs depend on it in France, which shares the Alps with seven other countries that depend on the mountains for revenue.

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And so many European resorts have treated the lack of snow in recent weeks as an existential crisis. They deployed snow cannons to artificially freeze water droplets into snow crystals. Some villages loaded piles of snow onto trucks. One Swiss resort even tried flying a helicopter in the snow. As far as it worked, it was just enough to cover narrow snippets that were soon featured in viral and sometimes dystopian videos on social media.

While artificial snow kept at least some of the tracks open at Les Gets last week, the racing was an unsatisfying experience for many. “Everybody’s in the same patch of snow, and it’s really bad snow,” said Marius van Hasselt, 21, a Dutch visitor. Some of his friends came home early.

At the same time, frantic efforts to keep business afloat at all costs are increasingly putting ski resorts at the center of a broader and particularly divisive climate debate: how long can seemingly doomed economic sectors cling to a changing world? heating?

Activists cheered when the Spanish government in 2021 banned parts of a small ski resort near Madrid from operating, in part citing a 25% decline in snowfall over the past 50 years and an increasingly unjustifiable environmental footprint.

In the Alps, climate activists are warning that more frequent use of snow cannons will exacerbate the drought. Water is lost in the process of making artificial snow as a result of evaporation, wind drift and other influences. And France, where some reservoirs dried up last summer, cannot afford to withdraw that water from natural circulation, activists say.

In recent weeks, snow cannons at at least five alpine ski resorts have been sabotaged, including La Clusaz, Les Gets and the Swiss resort of Verbier. “No skiing without snow,” read a message sprayed from a cannon in Les Gets, alongside a symbol of climate activism group Extinction Rebellion. (The group denies responsibility.)

Instead of trying to solve the problem with artificial snow, “it is urgent to start thinking about the ecological transition of this model”, said Fiona Mille, president of the environmental group Mountain Wilderness France. That could mean ziplines instead of cable cars, summer toboggan runs instead of winter sledding hills in low- or mid-altitude resorts.

In parts of the Alps, the end of skiing is not just near, activists argue. You’re late.

The mayor of La Clusaz, Didier Thévenet, said the resorts were being unfairly criticized because it was easy to go ski-bashing.

“In people’s minds, it’s for the rich, we use water, we use energy. We already use concrete mixers, we build a lot. So for them, we’re wrong about everything,” he said, sipping breakfast in a small mountain hut on the peak above his village, overlooking Western Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc, where snow is still plentiful. .

“Skiing represents everything that environmentalists don’t like,” he said.

Ski resort operators point to all the environmental practices they’ve adopted: cutting back on polluting fuel to clear snow and encouraging tourists to arrive in sleek high-speed trains rather than cars that clog mountain roads.

“We are convinced that there is a way to reasonably operate ski areas in harmony with nature,” said Laurent Reynaud, who represents the French association of ski areas.

La Clusaz authorities recognize that they will need to expand the use of snow cannons to remain profitable in the coming years. But the village recently cited environmental concerns in rejecting a lucrative offer from a major hotel chain to build a new resort. Authorities have been working to develop a larger summer tourism sector, while exploring the potential closure of ski slopes that are particularly vulnerable in warm winters.


Sources: Planet, OpenStreetMap

JANICE KAI CHEN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Sources: Planet, OpenStreetMap

JANICE KAI CHEN/THE WASHINGTON POST

“What we ask of the public and the [environmental] associations is to give us time to work with elected representatives, engineers, specialists and consultants, to make this evolution of our economic model,” said Jean-Philippe Monfort, head of the town’s tourism office.

But there may be economic and technological limits to how much and how quickly villages like La Clusaz can adapt. Skiers spend far more on lift passes and equipment hire than hikers contribute to the local economy.

“We will have less money and probably lower our standard of living,” said Thévenet.

Some of the economic pains are already being felt.

Nicolas Chauvin, 23, one of tens of thousands of seasonal workers at French ski resorts, was due to start working as a waiter in La Clusaz at the end of November. But he had to rely on unemployment insurance during a snowless delay, and when he finally reached the village on Saturday, rolling his suitcase along the snowless road, he wasn’t sure the wait had been worth it.

“The cable car cabins are all empty,” he said, looking disappointedly at the elevator in front of him.

Climate change has changed his life more than once in recent years. When he was working at a beach restaurant during the summer, record heat waves across Europe kept most tables empty for weeks.

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“I’m only 23 years old, but in the last 10 years everything has completely changed,” he said. “We need to reinvent everything.”

For some resorts, it may be too late. Many smaller ski resorts already struggle to “charge the price it would take to run a profitable business,” said tourism researcher Steiger, meaning they have little financial headroom to invest in other areas.

Resorts can accumulate so much debt that they will eventually be forced out of business without having built viable long-term alternatives, researchers warn.

“A wasteland – whether tourist or industrial – is a wasteland,” said Reghezza-Zitt.

But where some see wasteland, others see opportunity. On a remote La Clusaz trail that in previous winters was usually only accessible with snowshoes, a stream of tourists in sneakers and boots sweated in temperatures as high as 57 degrees Fahrenheit last week. Some laughed at the “avalanche” warning signs that poked out of the green grass in front of barren slopes.

Although some lifts at the resort were still working, Geraldine Guironnet, 49, did not join her husband and son in trying to go skiing that day. She feared that, having been hampered by excellent skiing conditions in the past, she wouldn’t have enjoyed skidding on what little snow cover remained.

“I loved it,” she said of her walk. “Just adapt.”

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