It's January and a forlorn ribbon of artificial snow, flanked by verdant pastureland, is all that links the Swiss village of Gstaad, altitude 1,050m, with the ski resort’s uppermost reaches.
Les Contamines, a French resort overlooking Mont-Blanc, just cancelled the recent World Cup telemark ski race because of a lack of snow. Only weeks into the season, some lower-altitude, lower-budget destinations are closed.
Europe’s iconic mountain range offers a front-row seat to the unfolding effects of climate change, which is melting ancient glaciers at an unprecedented rate, uncovering old plane wrecks and the bodies of long-lost mountaineers. Warming temperatures mean the vast majority of the world’s ski resorts already rely on artificial snow to boost snowpack and prolong the season, but a record run of mild weather in late December means even snow-making is no longer possible in some areas.
Capping the hottest year on record for France, New Year’s Eve saw overnight lows of 11°C, the mildest average nocturnal temperatures across the country since records began in 1947. Switzerland is warming twice as fast as the global average, suffering a roughly 2°C rise in temperatures over the past 150 years.
By the end of this century, warns the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, only resorts above 2,500m will get enough natural snow to stay in business.
Even at the Swiss resort of Davos, where the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum began on Jan 16, snowpack remains meagre on the lower slopes.
“It’s hard to picture such truly unprecedented winter warmth across Europe outside of a human-altered climate,” said Bob Henson, a meteorologist with Yale Climate Connections and author of The Thinking Person’s Guide To Climate Change.
Natalie Brezing, a marketing director at the Gstaad Palace hotel, says the shortage of white stuff is forcing people to appreciate the simpler joys of a scenic walk. But she didn’t sugarcoat the changes.
“No one can influence the weather, we need to take it as it is,” she said. “For a skier, it’s definitely very sad.”
Gstaad, long a playground for the rich, can always fall back on tourists who want to walk in the mountains rather than go hunting for powder. And the big, high-altitude resorts that lure British or Scandinavian skiers who booked months in advance are doing just fine.
In Tignes, which sits at 1,550m and offers skiing above 3,000m, the steady precipitation (falling critically as snow not rain) has all the hallmarks of a banner season. The resort already has a snow depth base of 53cm at the resort’s base that climbs to 172cm on the mountain.
It’s the lower-level resorts across France, Switzerland and Italy, more dependent on day trippers, which are suffering the most as those locals opt to pull out their hiking shoes or bikes instead – and save some cash in the process. Nearly half the 169 ski resorts that were forced to shut down since 1951 did so for a lack of snow, Euronews reported last year, citing research from the University of Grenoble.
It’s a trend that threatens to put skiing, already a costly pursuit, out of reach for those who can’t afford the prestigious high-altitude resorts.
It’s not just that the skiing is less reliable over the crucially lucrative Christmas break. Skiing seasons are getting shorter and shorter every year. In St Moritz, which sits at about 1,800m, the season opened in mid-October and ran till the end of May less than a decade ago. Last year, it opened in late November and is tentatively scheduled to close April 10. Between 2014 and 2019, it shut the pistes in May.
At least St Moritz can remain open. Splugen-Tambo, which sits at 1,480m, announced on Jan 2 it was shutting down its slopes until further notice due to a “lack of snow, heavy rainfall and high temperatures”.
Back in France at Les Contamines, they’re looking for ways to try and squeeze the cancelled Jan 7 ski competition back into the race calendar, but this winter has proven there are no guarantees.
The resort’s lower slopes are either closed or offer an unappealing patchwork of icy snow, rock and dirt. But at least its upper slopes which climb above 2,400m are well covered and, said a resort spokeswoman, have drawn skiers from lower altitude resorts that have closed due to insufficient snow.
Nearly all ski areas these days are equipped to produce artificial snow, which can be energy intensive and paradoxically exacerbate the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. The Winter Olympics held in China last year were the first to rely almost entirely on snow-making.
But effectively producing artificial snow requires temperatures of at least 3°C or 4°C below freezing, which increasingly are only being reached for a few hours at night.
“Green Christmases are increasingly common in the Alps,” the Davos, Switzerland-based Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, said in a recent report. “The vast majority of stations are seeing a clear reduction in the number of days with snow-covered ground, regardless of their altitude or location.”
Even at Verbier, the vaunted Swiss resort beloved by off-piste fanatics and celebrities alike, some pistes were being closed off at 1,650m, an anomaly for January.
The weather across the Alps is expected to cool to mid-single-digit highs on many valley floors in the coming days, which means that any rain forecast should fall as snow, not rain, above 1,500 meters. For climate-watchers, skiers and Europe’s $30-plus billion ski industry, that could not come soon enough. – Bloomberg