The great limestone peaks of the Dolomites glow ochre and pink in the summer sunset. The slab of the Marmolada glacier, the “Queen of the Dolomites”, glistens a regal white. But get up close and the sovereign is weeping. Countless rivulets of meltwater stream down her face.
The retreat of the Marmolada is heartbreaking. So is what she leaves behind: shrapnel, barbed wire, splinters of shacks and the other detritus of the first world war in which Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers battled for the controlling heights. As the glacier has shrunk, by more than half since the war, its time capsule is being opened. Last summer the ice gave up an unexploded shell. Sometimes it brings up dead soldiers, too. One appeared in 2010. Another surfaced last summer on the Adamello glacier farther west. Archaeologists describe how the ice, in its pockets, preserves not only the objects of war but also its smell, from the grease of military cableways to old sauerkraut.
Then there are the remains of a carefree and careless time, when the crevasses became dumps during the construction of cable-cars and ski lifts in the 1950s and 1960s. With its highest lift reaching 3,265 metres, the Marmolada was a spot for summer skiing. That fun ended in 2003 because of rising temperatures and costs. Much the same is happening to glacier skiing elsewhere.
The greenhouse gases emitted since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have so far warmed the world by roughly 1ºC, on average. But the effect has been greater in the Alps, the mountain range most visited for winter sports, which has warmed by about 2ºC. This has been most intense in summer, which is why the Marmolada glacier has been melting so fast. Increasingly, though, global warming is affecting the snow and ice in winters, too, with profound consequences for the winter-sports industry that has brought the high life to poor Alpine valleys.
Daniel Scott of the University of Waterloo, Robert Steiger of the University of Innsbruck, and others, have looked at this future warming in the context of the cities chosen to host the Winter Olympics, from Chamonix in 1924 to Pyeongchang in South Korea next month and Beijing in 2022. Even if emissions are cut to meet the target of the Paris climate agreement of 2015, only 13 of the 21 look certain to be cold enough to host snow-sports in the 2050s. With high emissions, the number would drop to just eight in the 2080s (see chart 1). The sight of helicopters rushing snow to Olympic sites in Vancouver in 2010 may be a harbinger of the future.
A more immediate worry for the winter-sports industry is that skiing and snowboarding have peaked in the rich world. Laurent Vanat, author of an annual report on snow and mountain tourism, estimates that the number of skier-days (visits to ski slopes for part of or a whole day) in the world’s main ski destinations fell from about 350m in the 2008-09 season to about 320m in 2015-16. This includes declines in the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, Italy and, most markedly, in fast-ageing Japan. The drop would be bigger still were it not for breakneck growth in China, where skier-days nearly tripled in the same period to 11m. American resorts (usually small ones) have been closing since the late 1980s. Those in the European Alps, which account for about 40% of skier-days, have mostly kept going, albeit with various public subsidies.
Snow country for old men
In the rich world, ageing skiers are gradually giving up the sport, although those who keep going tend to have lots of time and money to enjoy the snow. In America, over-55s make up about a fifth of skiers; the most avid are aged 72 and older. Still, their numbers are not being made up fast enough by younger skiers, for several reasons. In many places ticket prices have risen faster than inflation, although resorts offer discounts for season passes and early booking. In America, there is a trend for richer people to ski more than they used to, and poorer ones to ski less. Non-whites, a growing slice of the population, are less keen on skiing. In Europe, school trips to the slopes are less common, even in countries such as Austria and Switzerland that think of themselves as nations on skis. With global travel, those with money can just as easily fly to a beach in winter.
Mountains have only recently become playgrounds. In Mediterranean antiquity they were sacred places where the heavenly touched the earthly: Greek gods dwelt on Olympus and Moses was given the law on Mount Sinai. Later they became places of dread, where monsters lurked. The highest mountain in the Alps was known as Montagne Maudite, the “cursed mountain”, before becoming Mont Blanc.
In the age of reason, mountains became natural wonders to be studied and conquered; Mont Blanc was first scaled in 1786. They grew to fascinate the romantic imagination, offering a sense of the sublime, hence visits by Lord Byron and the Shelleys in the early 19th century. Percy Shelley penned a poem that became his declaration of atheism; Mont Blanc as the antithesis of Mount Sinai. Mary Shelley brought together all three strands—the cursed, the scientific, the romantic—when Frankenstein’s monster confronted its creator on one of the mountain’s glaciers.
As the 19th century progressed, the draw of the Alps became medical, too. Davos, in Switzerland, developed a reputation for treating tuberculosis with bright sunlight and crisp air. Thomas Mann, who nursed his consumptive wife in Davos, used it as the setting for “The Magic Mountain”. St Moritz, though known for its purifying waters, chose to sell itself mainly to fun-seekers. Winter holidays were born there, according to lore, in 1864, when Johannes Badrutt made a wager with English tourists spending summer in his hotel: come back at Christmas and see the valley bathed in winter sunshine; if you are dissatisfied, I will refund your expenses. Return they did, soon followed by Europe’s high society. With the English came the love of games and competitions, starting with ice-skating and sledding. Skiing was imported from Norway. Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes detective novels, was among the early enthusiasts in Davos, though he thought skis “the most capricious things on Earth”.
Skiing involved hours of hard climb on foot or skis for just a few minutes of downhill thrill. Its popularisation would have to await the introduction of mechanical ascent as well as the post-war economic boom. By then antibiotics had relieved the sanatoria of their tubercular residents, allowing them to become hotels. Under its “Snow Plan” of 1964, France created a network of high, purpose-built resorts to draw foreign tourists and prevent the depopulation of Alpine valleys. Brought by Norwegians, skiing caught on in North America, too. Both the Vail and Aspen resorts in Colorado, born as mining towns, were turned into ski resorts by veterans of the 10th Mountain Division who had trained in Colorado before serving in Europe.
This expansion took place in decades of abundant snow. Mountains can still get large dumps, as delegates at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year found out. But the long-term trends are sobering. Christoph Marty of the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos notes that the snow comes later and melts earlier, and the snowpack is thinning (see chart 2). By the end of the century there will be little snow in the Alps below 1,200 metres, and much less of it even below 1,800 metres.
In 2007 the OECD, a rich-world think-tank, sounded the alarm. It projected that, of 666 Alpine ski resorts, roughly 40% would no longer get enough snow to operate a 100-day season (a rule of thumb for making money) if the region warmed by another 2°C. Roughly 70% might go if it warmed by 4°C. The German Alps were especially vulnerable. In North America, projections suggest that resorts close to the western seaboard, especially in California, face a ruinous loss of skiing days. Skiing in Australia looks all but doomed.
Seeking colder, more snow-sure places, developers in Canada have won authorisation to build a new resort in Valemount, in the Rockies west of Edmonton, avoiding the lawsuits by environmentalists and first-nation groups that have hampered similar projects elsewhere. Meanwhile, some American resorts are trying to coax more snow out of the clouds by seeding them with plumes of silver iodide.
The main response of resorts has been to invest heavily in artificial snow-making. Messrs Scott and Steiger have reworked climate-model assessments to take this into account. One looks at roughly 300 resorts in the vulnerable eastern Alps (parts of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy). Relying just on natural snow, about 70% of them would no longer survive with 2°C more warming, and 90% would be endangered with 4°C. But with snow-making these proportions fell to about 15% and 60% respectively (see map).
First adopted by some American resorts in the 1950s, snow-making has evolved from patching bald ski runs to guaranteeing and extending the season, especially around Christmas. Even high stations such as St Moritz (alt. 1,800 metres) start by creating a base layer of artificial snow. In fact, operators often prefer it to the natural stuff as it is harder-wearing, and more resistant to melting. Athletes think it more reliable, too. The French resort of Les Deux Alpes has even started spraying snow on its glacier (above 3,000 metres) to preserve it. The machine-made stuff is called “programmed snow” in Italian, “technical snow” in German and “snow from culture” in French. Just don’t call it “artificial”.
Off-piste skiers cannot do without natural powder. But the mass of enthusiasts on machine-groomed runs seem indifferent to whether they are sliding on cloud- or man-made snow. Increasingly, what the heavens provide is a bonus, helping to create the winter ambience. “People do not care about the snow, they care about the sun,” says Paolo Cappadozzi, vice-president of Dolomiti Superski, a vast domain that includes the Marmolada.
Resorts in the Dolomites invested heavily in snow-making after two disastrously snowless seasons between 1988 and 1990. Even as the climate has warmed, their ski season has lengthened. It may be no coincidence that some of the world’s biggest makers of snow machines are based in the Dolomites.
As for environmentalists’ accusations that ski resorts are wasting water, not to mention electricity, Mr Cappadozzi is unmoved. They account for a fraction of the water used for agriculture or industry, he argues. Most of the snow is made in a short burst at the start of the season; the water is only temporarily held on the slopes before it flows back into streams and aquifers. Even so, Mr Cappadozzi reckons snow-making accounts for about 13% of his expenditure, a cost passed on to skiers.
In some places water really is scarce. The small Kaberlaba station in Asiago (alt. 1,000 metres), in Italy, is on porous rock; water quickly drains away. Rather than make snow with expensive (and sometimes rationed) tap water, Paolo Rigoni, the manager, started to use treated municipal sewage in 2010, an idea for which he received a presidential prize. Customers do not mind skiing on recycled effluent, he insists: “It’s not that different from water treatment in some American cities.”
Beyond snow-making there is “snow farming”, as practised in the Austrian resort of Kitzbühel. At an altitude of only 800 metres, it is often regarded as the most vulnerable of the big Alpine stations. The resort stockpiles some snow in winter and covers it through the summer for use in the autumn. This allowed Kitzbühel to open its first runs on October 14th last year, before most rivals; it hopes to keep skiers going for 200 days, its longest-ever season. Is this a marketing wheeze? No, smiles Josef Burger, boss of the Kitzbühel lift company, it is a strategy to draw keen skiers and athletes: “The early bird catches the worm.”
For Carmen de Jong of the University of Strasbourg, the headlong rush into snow-making is costly, environmentally damaging and ultimately self-defeating. “Many resorts are closing their eyes to reality,” she says. She advocates a “deceleration” in the winter-sports industry.
Nowhere are things more unreal than in north-east Asia. Pyeongchang, and especially the area around Beijing, are certainly cold in winter, but are largely snowless. And with relatively low mountains, new runs are being cut through forests to accommodate the Olympic downhill races.
Ski resorts are proliferating in China, including those in the Chongli district north-west of the capital that will host some of the sites for the Olympics in 2022. They are covered completely with artificial snow. This is despite the fact that the water table in Beijing has dropped alarmingly over the decades, and enormous diversion works are sending some of the Yangzi’s waters to the capital. In a warming world things here could get yet drier. Wind turbines may be spinning on ridges in Chongli to provide the snow-makers with green power; but the surreal white streaks painted on barren mountains, as if by a calligrapher’s hand, seem to spell “waste”.
China’s golf courses, which also have an exorbitant thirst, face punitive water tariffs. The Chinese state regards golf as a source of corruption. But skiing is, for now, clean middle-class family fun, and thus gets an environmental free ride. “It is white opium. It’s addictive,” pronounces He Huan, a gym instructor who snowboards at Wanlong, the biggest resort in Chongli.
Xi Jinping, China’s president, has spoken of 300m Chinese taking up winter sports. Where the leader points, the state follows. Skier-days are growing by 20% a year; 78 new (mostly small) resorts opened in 2016 alone, says Benny Wu, a consultant. “It could grow at this rate for another 15-20 years,” he declares. Chongli is served by a four-lane highway; a high-speed railway line will be completed by next year. Soon Beijingers could live in the clean air of Chongli and commute to the capital.
Around the world, operators are hoping that just a fraction of the potentially huge cohort of Chinese enthusiasts will one day travel to their resorts. That is one reason why most will not admit that they face a bleak future. Many recognise it indirectly, though, when they speak of diversifying, particularly by expanding the summer season. In shrinking winters, they say, ski resorts compete against each other; in summer they can take a bigger chunk of the fast-growing global tourist market.
Another possibility is, like Johannes Badrutt more than 150 years ago, to lure winter visitors with no skiing at all. Rather than invest in snow-making, the operators of Stockhorn in Switzerland decided in 2004 to build a restaurant at the top of the cable-car (alt. 2,100 metres) offering visitors candlelit dinners overlooking Lake Thun. On the slopes there is winter hiking, night snowshoeing, ice-fishing, an igloo village and more. “We changed from noisy skiing to soft winter,” says Alfred Schwarz, its boss. “We have more visitors, especially in summer, and we are more profitable.”
Perhaps in ever hotter summers more holiday-makers will seek the coolness that high altitudes provide. Might mountains once again become summer retreats, as in the 19th century? Chamonix, the home of mountaineering, makes almost as much money in summer as it does in winter. Chinese day-trippers, among others, are keen to glimpse Mont Blanc.
This is not a future which everyone believes in. Not every ski resort has an iconic mountain that looks wonderful in summer. And for all the golf, horse-riding and mountain-biking that may be on offer, nothing draws people quite like the thrill of snow, many resort officials say. Their mantra is: “Skiing is not everything. But without skiing there is nothing.”
On top of the world
Sooner or later (through regulation and carbon pricing, or global warming) resorts will have to rethink their model. Small, low-lying stations will have to find alternatives to skiing or close. Rich ones in high places and with good sources of water and electricity may thrive. Chamonix, though at just 1,000 metres, has pistes reaching 3,300 metres. “If we will not be able to ski here any more, we will not able to ski anywhere,” says Eric Fournier, the mayor. “We may even attract more people.” That may be a problem, too. The Chamonix valley is often shrouded in smog, the product of wood-burning chimneys and the exhaust fumes of lorries rumbling to the Mont Blanc Tunnel between France and Italy.
How paradoxical. Snow-sports enthusiasts think of themselves as great lovers of nature and clean air, more conscious than most people of the changing climate. Yet their sport is becoming ever more man-made, expensive and exclusive. Perversely, it is also becoming more polluting, producing ever more emissions of greenhouse gases to survive. That only hastens the melting of the snow and ice. As Victor Hugo put it: “How sad to think that nature speaks and mankind will not listen.”
Jan 25th 2018 | PUNTA SERAUTA, ST MORITZ AND WANLONG