Snowboarding without Snow?

Climate change is posing a huge threat to winter sport industry in Europe

The Alpine Convention is the organization created by an international treaty between the Alpine Countries (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia and Switzerland) as well as the EU, for the sustainable development and protection of the Alps. It was created in 1991 with the objective protecting the natural environment of the Alps while promoting its development [1]. 25 years after its formation, the Alpine Convention finds itself grappling with the problem of global warming and its impact on the Alpine winter sports industry – a much bigger problem than the founding fathers had envisioned.

The Alps are extremely sensitive to climate change, and recent warming in the Alps has been over three times the global average. Currently, about 606 out of 666 (roughly 90%) of the ski areas in Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland can be considered as naturally snow-reliable. This number is expected to drop to 500 for a 1 degree celsius increase in temperature, 404 for a 2 degree celsius increase, and to 202 for a 4 degree celsius increase. The impact on the different Alpine countries are expected to be different – for example, Germany will be the most affected and only a 1 degree drop in temperature will lead to 60% decrease in the number of naturally snow-reliable ski areas. Switzerland, on the other hand, will be least affected [2].

Steps currently being taken – short-term & costly

The Alpine Convention commissioned a study in 2006 to understand the effects of climate change. In 2009, the Convention came up with an action plan listing down steps to be taken to tackle this climate change [3]. Key steps that are being taken are:

  • Moving ski areas to higher altitudes and glaciers
  • Artificial snow-making
  • Grooming of ski slopes
  • Protecting against glacier melt with white plastic sheets
  • Diversification of tourism revenues
  • Use of insurance and weather derivatives

Most of these measures are reactive and are short-term quick fixes. They also come with their own costs and limitations. For example, snow making costs increase exponentially as the temperature increase and if ambient temperatures increase beyond a threshold, snow making will simply not be viable. Similarly, grooming of ski slopes can reduce the minimum depth of snow required for skiing by 10 or 20 cm. However, grooming will not be effective for a further decline or absence of snow cover. Plastic sheets can only cover so much of the glaciers and are not effective beyond a certain level of warming. Insurance can cover losses from occasional instances of snow-deficient winters but cannot protect against systematic long-term trend towards warm winters.

A more holistic approach is required

The Convention needs to recognize that the issue of global warming and especially its enhanced effects on the Alpine ecosystem involves many more stakeholders than the winter sport industry itself. Hence, it needs to partner with these stakeholders for a more well-rounded approach to solving this problem. This would include:

  • Sustainable heating: Heating industry is a big contributor to CO2 emissions in the Alps. The Convention should work towards ensuring more sustainable heating solutions in and around the skiing areas by working with the local community and implementing strict regulation. For example, promote use of renewable sources of energy like biomass boilers, heat pumps for heating. It is important to note that solar radiations are more intense in the mountains so they should promote use of solar energy.
  • Sustainable transport: Encourage regional and local authorities to reduce traffic impact on environment and climate. Some measures could be: discourage use of individual cars, develop international trans-Alpine rail network, promote use of cleaner transport (soft mobility) like cable cars
  • Sustainable land planning: Draft regulations to preserve ecological balance, e.g. maintain natural carbon sinks, use advance bioclimatic planning (with the help of maps indicating solar exposure, winds etc.) for land planning

Around 120 million tourists visit the Alps every year and the tourism industry is a big part of the economy of the Alpine region [4]. It is important that the Alpine Convention and other stakeholders adopt pro-active measures to rise to the challenge of climate change which threatens to disrupt this industry.


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Student comments on Snowboarding without Snow?

  1. I really liked your article, Shantanu. As a big fan of snowboarding, I´ve noted at firsthand how snow quality has worsened over time in the past few years. I totally agree with you when you say the current initiatives are short-term fixes – most of the resorts and entities affected by global warming in the Alps are working on the symptoms, not on the causes of such warming.

    A major challenge, in my opinion, will be for these companies and entities to ensure local authorities are onboarded and will prioritize this issue. I agree that an international treaty to discuss best-practices and to come up with goals will help the community to better understand the real causes, but without local authorities´ involvement, execution will be limited. At the end of the day, without budget and authority involvement, the required infrastructure to implement sustainable heating, transport and land planning will not be prioritized over other local issues, such as security and health.

    A good benchmark to solve this issue is how some ski resorts in US are even working with Obama administration to minimize coal leasing expansion on Department of Interior Land:
    I really hope these issues are properly addressed by the authorities in the following years, so all of us can keep enjoying snowboarding and high-quality snow in the future.

  2. I enjoyed reading Shantanu’s post, and think that he makes a really good point by noting that most of the measures the Alpine Convention is taking are short-term and reactive, and may not get to the root of the climate change problem. One of the questions I had while reading this post through, is just how expensive and logistically complex is it to implement the steps the Alpine Convention is taking to maintain ski lifts, such as making artificial snow and moving ski areas higher? For example, I imagine that previously, many ski lifts did not spend much money on obtaining snow. Now, however, to make artificial snow for the slopes, ski lifts need to invest in machinery and labor to buy equipment to make snow, determine how much snow to make each day, when and where the snow should be distributed, monitor actual snowfall, etc. At the same time, revenues for the snowboarding and ski industries have fallen in recent years due to fewer skiers because there is less natural snow. The financial pressures on the ski and snowboarding industry seems enormous.

    The use of machinery to make artificial snow also seems like it would exacerbate the issue of climate change. As it becomes warmer, more snowmaking equipment will be needed to make snow which will only contribute to climate change. To Shantanu’s point, I think that unless the industry can find sustainable, long term solutions to climate change, they may only be making the problem worse.

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