Climate change clouds future of winter sports


A view shows a closed ski lift amid a lack of snow on a mild winter day at the Hautacam ski resort in Beaucens, Hautes-Pyrenees, southwestern France, February 20, 2024. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

(Reuters) -Pietro Casartelli always dreamed of becoming a professional athlete, but the alpine skier, 18, says climate change is making his goals harder and much more expensive to achieve.

Last year, as his usual high altitude summer ski slopes were melted by record-high temperatures, he had planned to join a training camp in Chile. But the trip was cancelled as too few would-be participants could afford the fees.

Warming weather systems and a shorter season are threatening winter sports and testing the resolve of professionals and amateurs alike, across Europe.

Hautacam, a ski resort in the French Pyrenees, rebranded itself "Hautacam Plage" (or Hautacam Beach) on social media and its 20 pistes have become destinations for hiking and biking rather than winter sports.

"If we keep having seasons like this one, we'll have to stop," said Josiane Sempe, owner of a ski rental store in Hautacam.

Tourists can bike on zip lines instead of skiing.

"Will this become the only recipe for our resort in winter?" said Marie-Florentine Hulin, the resort's communications and marketing manager. "It's a difficult question to answer."

At the nearby resort of Bareges, skiers have the option of an artificial snow slope, surrounded by mountains without any snow.

"We have to ask ourselves .. when is it acceptable to start ski races, under what conditions are we willing to run these ski races," said Fabien Saguez, president of the French Ski Federation (FFS), with 100,000 members of which half are amateurs.

An International Biathlon Union (IBU) survey shows that some 60% of athletes in the sport, which combines skiing and shooting, have felt the impact of climate change, affecting training and competition conditions.

CANCELLED EVENTS

Unpredictable weather is an even bigger challenge to winter sports than rising temperatures, said Susanna Sieff, the sustainability director of the International Ski Federation (FIS).

"Storms of the century are being seen now every four to five years," she said.

The FIS had to cancel two ski races in Germany and France this month, while the Snowboard World Cup faced a massive storm in Mammoth, California that brought record snowfall.

As the 2026 Milano-Cortina Winter Olympics approach, concerns have mounted that climate change will threaten the competition.

"By mid-century, there will remain practically just 10-12 NOCs (National Olympic Committees) who could host these snow events," the International Olympic Committee (IOC) website quoted its President Thomas Bach as saying in October.

France's public audit office said this month the economic model for the country's ski resorts was running out of steam in the face of climate change and that most resorts were likely to be affected by 2050, with areas south of the Alps hit hardest.

The report highlights how authorities are to slow to adapt, said David Ponson, director of ski areas at the French ski resorts operator Compagnie des Alpes.

Stephane Remy, a visitor in Hautacam, said those who want to enjoy the mountain in winter have to turn to new sports.

"The snow situation is likely to get worse," he said, "so we might as well adapt ourselves to this and find other activities in the nature, such as cycling or hiking."

($1 = 0.9235 euros)

(Reporting by Diana Mandiá, Alessandro Parodi and Tristan Veyet and Stephane Mahe in Hautacam, editing by Ed Osmond, Ingrid Melander and Barbara Lewis)

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