Down to Earth – Climate change: The end of skiing?

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As climate change takes its toll, warm winter and unreliable snow are now the new reality. Will skiing become a relic of the past? Ski resorts can improvise and adapt, but can they survive? We take a closer look in this edition of Down to Earth.

Upping the altitude

As snow melts on the lower slopes, the safest direction is up. That, at least, is what the Valloire resort, in the Savoie region of France, is doing. “At altitudes below 2,000 metres, there is no future for skiing,” explains Jean-Marie Martin, the resort manager.  As a result, the resort is closing 10 lower-altitude slopes and opening four new ones higher up. The price tag: a hefty €8 million.

Martin estimates that this will buy his resort 30 to 40 years of alpine skiing. In the long term, though, he plans to diversify away from the “ski only” model, creating a year-round resort. “It’s the end of the ‘ski only’ model, but without skiing, it’s the end for our resorts,” he summarises.

No snow, no season

We also spoke to Hugues François, a researcher at INRAE’s Col de Porte weather station in the Alps. Average snowfall has dropped by half since the 1960s, and as the decline continues, snow cannons will need 40 percent more water just to maintain current levels of natural snow. Alongside the French Met Office, François has developed CLIMSNOW, a software mapping the future need for snow production, in order to optimise water consumption.

Conflict in La Clusaz

Artificial snow, though, is not without controversy. Besides the energy it takes to produce, it requires vast quantities of water, stored and ready for cold enough temperatures to start production. In many cases, this means the creation of artificial lakes.

In La Clusaz (Upper Savoie), one such project has sparked anger in the local community. In a forest that many protected species call home, an artificial lake would entail the felling of trees and could threaten biodiversity. Local activist Valérie Paumier tells us that, in 2022, “this is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing anymore”. Paumier, a keen skier herself, is not calling for an end to skiing, saying “we are all skiers, we love skiing”. Extinction Rebellion activists have also joined the local opposition and staged an on-site sit-in back in late 2021.

Local authorities insist that the lake will also serve local farmers and will be a source of drinking water for the resort, but two thirds of this new 148,000 m3 lake are reserved for snowmaking. For now, La Clusaz is synonymous with skiing and skiing only, with no sign of a shift in the economic model.

Métabief is moving on

However, the Métabief resort in the France’s Jura region has broken the industry’s collective omerta, anticipating the resort’s last ski season in the early 2030s. Manager Olivier Erard’s job is to ensure economic alternatives are in place: out with the old, in with a menu of year-round attractions such as mountain biking, hiking and paragliding. This is not the end of mountain tourism. On the contrary, Erard believes the end of alpine skiing need not be a trauma. “Maybe the end is near, and so what?” he asks.

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