Is the future of Alpine skiing all downhill?

In the latest episode of the Met Office Mostly Climate podcast, Dr Rosie Oakes discusses climate and the future of Alpine snow sports with Carlo Carmagnola – a Grenoble-based snow scientist with Meteo France.

Alpine snow sports generate significant income for the regional economy. Image: Shutterstock

The first few days of 2023 saw exceptional warmth across much of central and western Europe. With temperatures exceeding 20°C, many records were broken – the warm air was extensive as even the snow-lined Alpine landscape became punctuated with broad patches of rock, soil and grass.

Good winter snow conditions are a significant source of tourism revenue. Delicate ecosystems rely on natural winter snow cover, locking in water for healthy spring growth. While the albedo effect means the snow reflects sunlight and limits temperature rise. The melting event of early January was not welcome.

The prospect for snow sports?

Carlo studies the properties of Alpine snow, and how climate change will impact snow cover in local ski resorts. A particular interest is the balance between natural snow cover and the creation of artificial snow.

A snow cannon producing artificial snow. Image: Shutterstock

Making artificial snow is standard across numerous Alpine resorts. It plays a critical role through the pre-season and during times when no natural snow is expected. The process requires: water, often sourced from nearby reservoirs; air temperatures between -1°C to 6°C; low humidity air; and light winds.

Artificial snow comes with a number of caveats – it requires considerable use of energy and water. And, if followed by warm temperatures, all that you’ve produced may simply melt away.

Future planning

Anticipating the state of snow through a week, month, season is one thing; future planning for decades ahead requires a greater level of information.

Climate projections are key to understanding the distribution, quality of snow and ice cover; and therefore the future of snow sports.

The future climate depends on how much carbon-dioxide is released into the atmosphere linked to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels. There are many climate scenarios describing these futures and the team use these to understand future impacts.

Carlo is clear temperature is the main limitation for snow cover. He said: “Interestingly, climate projections don’t show decreases in snow fall, but rather increases in melting rate; the impact of which will vary across resorts. At higher elevations there will usually be more snow due to the lower temperatures.

“Below 1500 metres it gets more complicated. The aspect or direction that a slope faces are also key factors impacting melting rates. Computer simulations integrate climate information with snow management, but when it comes down to it – it’s all dependent on future greenhouse emissions.”

The results from Carlo’s studies show skiing will still be viable in the Alps, but there is likely to be a slow degradation of the conditions, with lower-elevation resorts generally doing less well than the high-elevation ones.

What will happen to Alpine snow?

Skiing Vallee Blanche Chamonix with amazing panorama of Grandes Jorasses and Dent du Geant from Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc mountain, Haute-Savoie, France. Image: Shutterstock

Carlo concludes: “In 30 years, skiing should still be possible across the Alps, but there will be a great dependence on snowmaking. And in some resorts, even with the addition of snowmaking, you will not be able to ensure a long enough season for your customers.”

For presenter and climate scientist Rosie Oakes, Carlo’s work has wider significance: “As well as enabling resorts to plan for climate change, the research carried out by Carlo’s team prompts wider questions about of the impact of climate change on the global economy and the climate-dependant activities people currently enjoy.”

Listen to the full conversation on the latest episode of the Mostly Climate podcast.

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