Travel special: Has the ski industry got its head in the snow about climate change?
Every year, one million skiers take to the slopes from the UK alone, while a staggering five million Brits consider themselves to be skiers even if they don't actually make it to the mountains. Europe is home to thousands of ski resorts, with Austria, France, Switzerland and Italy among the most popular. The Alps alone has more than 600 resorts with more than 10,000 pipes, half pipes and ski lifts catering for 85 per cent of the UK's skiers. But what impact does the annual influx of tourists have on mountainous regions' delicate eco-systems? And what effect is climate change having on the ski business itself?
Alpine regions are particularly sensitive to climate change. The Alps, for example, has been warming at three times the global average rate. Yet skiing, unlike other types of tourism, is 100 per cent dependent on temperature, weather and climate. 'Temperate weather is important for snowfall and snow melt, while winds and extreme weather regularly close ski lifts. Climate is the overall trend' explains Veronica Tonge of travel consultancy, Responsible Skiing. These factors vary on a regional basis for different resorts at different altitudes, which makes it difficult to identify general trends. However, Veronica says that there does seems to be a slant towards increased snowlines. In other words, where it used to snow down to 800 metres, it now only snows higher up.
The minimum amount of snowfall necessary for skiing is 30 centimetres but this increases with higher elevations and rocky terrain. As a rule of thumb, the snow depth must hold for 100 days (the 100 day rule) in at least seven out of 10 winters to be considered reliable. Snow reliability affects the number of safe and economically sound ski days available to skiers and depends on precipitation and temperature. It's a delicate threshold. Snow that reaches the ground will melt faster if it is warmer and fall as rain if it is warmer still. This fall-freeze-thaw action can create unstable snow packs, which is bad news for anyone trying to avoid avalanches.
Climatologist, Dr. Christoph Marty of the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, says that in general snowfall seems to be decreasing but there are regional differences, which can be explained by the altitude of the ski areas. 'There are larger decreases in regions of 'critical altitude' [below 2,000 metres] such as in southern Germany or some parts of Austria. Ski resorts above 2,000m are on the 'safer side,' he says. 'Although it's not that simple because some areas in Scandinavia are seeing increases in precipitation at the critical altitude.'