Monday, 01 November 2021 09:01

What's the future for ski resorts in a changing climate?

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In 1952 ‘Climate and the British  Scene’ by Gordon Manley was published, and has been reprinted as updated editions numerous times since.

He has been described as probably the best known, most prolific and most expert writer on the British climate of his generation. He assembled the the CET - Central England Temperature series of monthly mean temperature stretching back to 1659, which is the longest standardised instrumental record available anywhere in the world. It provides a proxy record of climatic change for the period covered, and is a remarkable example of scientific scholarship and perseverance. It took thirty years to complete. Manley knew climate science.

In discussing snow, Manley mentions how it only comes in to the consciousness of large numbers of the population in what may be referred to as ‘cold snaps’ or ‘severe winters’. Mention is made of the winters in 1940, 41, and 42. The cold January of 1945, the very severe February of 1947 and the cold December of 1950. February 1954 and 1955 were snowy; February 1956 severely cold.

He states “It remains to be seen whether, in 1980,  [the year he died] we shall continue to describe winter extremes as dangerously rare.”

Hilly Ski Helen Rennie skiing a snow patch, Cairngorm, August 2019

In the chapter about snowfall and snow cover he discusses the number of days that snow is on the ground at Braemar and in the Cairngorm mountains. “Hence it might be argued that skiing accommodation might be profitably established at this level ( 2,000 to 2,200ft) where indeed the chances of snow-cover in Scotland are about equal to those of the lower Alpine resorts.

Unfortunately, the conditions for skiing are rendered the more difficult, not only by the weather; terrain plays it’s part……Icy patches interspersed with projecting boulders, followed by irregular drifts hardened by the incessant wind often provide challenging difficulties even on a sunny day, which are hardly conductive to the relaxed enjoyment offered by a high-altitude resort in the central Alps, within the European axis of high pressure.”

In 1956 the permanent ski uplift was installed at Meall A’Buiridh in Glencoe, and from 1960 skiing was developed at Cairngorm, with Aviemore as the resort town. The heyday could be said to have been throughout the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

By 1980, while there were still occasional ‘harsh’ winters, the frequency of them was reducing. They were certainly becoming rarer. Conversely the years when all snow in Scotland was disappearing were increasing. The Sphinx is probably the most ‘famous’ snow patch in the United Kingdom, located in Garbh Choire Mòr below Braeriach in the Cairngorms. The ground beneath it has probably seen daylight for less than a few months since the start of the little ice age in the 16th-19th centuries. It has disappeared only a total of 8 times in the last 300 years: 1933, 1953, 1959, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2017 and 2018 almost always being the last patch to melt. The celebrated Scottish naturalist Seton Gordon (1886–1977) came to record and photograph it in October 1910, and when Sphinx disappeared in 1933 it was such an unusual occurrence that a member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club wrote a letter to the Times of London to say that such a thing “had never been known before” and that it was well worth “recording in a paper of record” because it was “unlikely to happen again”.

IMG 1687LRThe Sphinx snow patch, October 2019

So where does all this leave skiing, both in Scotland and in other areas?

There have been numerous academic studies carried out on the effects of climate change on winter tourism from the late 1980’s onwards.

Some of these were referenced in ‘Climate Change - Impacts on the Tourism Industry in Mountain Areas’ by Rolf Bürki, Hans Elsasser, and Bruno Abegg, from the University of Zurich. This was presented at the 1st International Conference on Climate Change and Tourism, Djerba, Tunisia,  in April 2003.

Arctic Basecamp, World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland 2020Arctic Basecamp, World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland

For many alpine areas the main tourism revenue came in the winter, with snow reliability being key to the skiing on offer. The last two winters of the 1980’s brought little snow which unfortunately coincided with increased capital investment in many resorts. And it’s not only snow that is required for winter sports, year round increasing temperatures effect glaciers and permafrost, which in turn effects the foundations of mountain buildings, plus infrastructure such as cableway stations and lift masts.

In 2003 85% of Swiss ski resorts were considered snow reliable, if the snow line rose to 1500m it was predicted that it would drop to 63%, if it rose to 1800m then snow reliability would rise to only 44%. In countries with lower resorts such as Germany or Austria the issue would be even more severe, Kitzbuehl is only at 760m. Building higher altitude resorts isn’t simply an abstract idea, a planning application has been submitted to develop the pristine Austrian Ötztal glacier, linking Pitztal to Sölden, creating a mega high altitude resort.  But data from the University of Innsbruck suggests that the vast majority of the glacier will have melted by 2050 anyway. If construction were to start now and take the estimated six years to complete the resort would only be open 24 years.

XC Ski Offer in Pontresina near St MoritzXC Ski Offer in Pontresina near St Moritz

Interestingly a 2003 study outlined the thoughts of various ski are representatives. While aware of the issues, and understanding the importance of snow reliability they often appeared to see potential climatic change as of relatively minor importance, being distrustful of information about climate change and playing down it’s potential consequences, yet using climate change to legitimate forward strategies.

The conflicting feelings of ski area management in 2003 could be thought of as remarkable considering the size of the industry. A 2006 study considered Western European and Japanese skiing to be US$3 billion and US$1.4 billion industries respectively (54% of the market) , even Australia was considered to have a US$94 million ski industry.

All studies indicate negative consequences for the industry in regard to reduced season length due to climate change, but suggesting there is potential for ski area growth in Eastern Europe, South America and China.

So how can the skiing industry adapt? Undoubtedly this has to be led by tourism operators (supply side) as opposed to consumers (demand side). A fatalistic attitude won’t work as a strategy. The first thing that springs to mind is technology, notably snow making. ( First implemented in Grossinger Resort, Carskill Mountains, New York State in 1952). Millions of pounds, dollars and euros  have been spent on investing in such infrastructure, and most resorts now use it. It can have a huge effect on ski season length. But is it sustainable? It requires huge amounts of water to be drawn from local resources, and the simple cost of powering equipment will put a huge strain on the economics, let alone the environment. Modifications of ski areas are another approach, developing those on northern facing aspects. While we all enjoy ‘the sunny side’ that is where snow melts first. The season itself may also shift, with resorts opening later and for shorter periods. Christmas has often been seen as the start of the season, could this be pushed back?

Snow Factory Cairngorm Snow Factory, Cairngorm

Or how about ‘cloud seeding’? A weather modification technology that increases precipitation. It’s been tried in North America and Canada, although a US government report concluded there was no evidence it worked.

The most obvious approach is diversification and a broadening of the offer. As Marc Schlüssel, Head of Marketing, Communications, and Events, at the Swiss resort of Lenzerheide commented me. “A ski holiday is a vacation, the skiing is an important part of it no doubt, but so is spending time with friends and family.”

It also has to be remembered that winter sports and skiing aren’t only lift served ‘inbounds’ going alpine skiing. Snowshoeing, ski touring, ice fishing, and cross country skiing are all part of the offer, as well as music events and festivals. “We’ve seen a huge increase in cross country skiing over the past few years, it’s maybe part of the back to nature vibe. People want to get away from lifts and exercise by being more in tune with the environment.”

During the 1970’s lift tickets represented the majority of resort revenue, now they may be only  half. Many resorts are also developing year round offers – mountain biking being the obvious beneficiary. Winter sports uplift can double as MTB uplift, ski areas have car parking and accommodation available, what are ski rooms in winter can be transformed in to bike rooms in the summer. Then there are conferences, the most well known being World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Gondola transporting hikers and bikers, St Moritz, Engadine, Switzerland.Gondola transporting hikers and bikers, St Moritz, Engadine, Switzerland.

This adaptation can be seen across the world, Whistler in Canada is known for skiing and MTB;  as is Morzine, France; Hafjell, Norway; as well as Nevis Range at Fort William in Scotland. In fact it could be argued that some of these destinations are now better known for the fun to be had on wheels rather than skis.

St. Moritz was one of the earliest ski resorts, a few miles down the road is Celerina, where The Cresta Palace Hotel has spent more than CHF 2 million updating its ski rooms and guest equipment storage facilities, to not only include heated lockers to dry ski boots, shoes and helmets, but incorporate bike storage and a bike wash area with both a water hose and compressed air line to dry bikes off with.

hotel bike wash, Celerina, Engadine, SwitzerlandHotel bike wash, Celerina, Engadine, Switzerland

This is all a huge change from the late 1990’s when as Alex Pampel, who owns the Sport Hotel in Pontresina also near St Moritz recalls

“In 1999 we had our first MTB packages but there were few MTB specific trails, no trail maps or infrastructure such as bike hangers on the ski lifts.”

Graubünden, the Canton containing of the afore mentioned ski resorts, has proactively developed an integrated offer for mountain biking through innovative and forward thinking companies like Allegra Tourism, who also work internationally. And as Darco Cazin from Allegra says

“There are several reasons why urban and rural regions should consider mountain biking tourism. For ski destinations, the main reasons are the activation of their summer business, the very attractive target group of mountain bikers and the added value that can be generated with an adequate offer. With the eBikes, the potential for mountain bike tourism has been broadened even more. In the Alps, we consider it to be one of the most significant chances for sustainable development that we’ve had in the past 40 years."

Marc Schlüssel, Lenzerheide, Marketing Head doing some hike a bike in Flims. Marc Schlüssel, Lenzerheide, Marketing Head doing some hike a bike in Flims.

It’s not only about building trails, supporting accommodation, and package deals, but also innovative marketing projects such as ‘Lenzerheide Bike Kingdom’, which isn’t just about trails and events but includes an app transforming the mountain into a virtual playing field linking the real and virtual world of action sports.

We want to ski, but more often than not people have to travel to get to ski resorts - often by flying. Resorts themselves have an impact on the environment, lifts require power, deforestation, effects on wildlife, water use, even the residue of ski waxes and so on. So like all environmental issues we are the problem. Like motorists in traffic jams complaining about the traffic.

The Cairngorm National Park contains three ski areas - Cairngorm Mountain, Lecht and Glenshee. And while Cairngorm Mountain has had it’s much publicised issues there is still optimism for the future, and an increase in the general offer available across all ski areas. Importantly the Cairngorm National Park itself is being proactive on the climate change issue with its ‘Net Zero With nature’ policy. In a document released in December 2019 park CEO Grant Muir stated

“While considerable work is taking place in the Cairngorms to address climate change, business as usual will not put us on the trajectory to reduce [C02] emissions and transform our economy.” The first of the four recommendations in being - “To identify the global climate emergency as an overarching priority for Cairngorm National Park Authority.”

HillySki Cairngorms National Park Piste Skiing in the Cairngorms

So should we ski local, and be largely self powered? Those who skied in Scotland in the 1950s when Manley was writing his seminal book would have done that. They’d also have shopped locally, travelled by bike or train, bought items by weight in reusable jars and made items of clothing last. And one more thing, Scottish skier Helen Rennie has skied at least once a month in Scotland for the past 10 years, gaining as much pleasure from skiing on modest patches as others get from mega resorts. Sliding downhill is a simple pleasure, maybe simple is best.

Skiing will change in the future, maybe it will become an occasional treat as opposed to the main event. Ski area managers may look after ski area and police future developments, but we all have a responsibility to look after the planet.