“No more of parental rules!
We’re heading for the snow!
Good riddance to those grown up ghouls!
We’re leaving! Yukon Ho!”
Calvin and Hobbs
Few head to the mountains and come back disappointed. After months of drudge and commute, what can beat the exhilarating freedom of the slopes, the joy of a cold beer at 3000 metres, the unguent messiness of a fondue with friends and tall tales at the end of a muscle aching day?
No wonder that each year around one million British people and many millions of other Europeans go skiing for their holidays. In the Alps alone, where 13 million people live permanently, 100 million visitors descend (or rather ascend) the mountains each year – accounting for one tenth of the world’s total tourism market.
And in the days of short haul flights to places such as Lyon and Geneva often costing under £10 those numbers are set to grow and grow – with a predicted 250 per cent increase in airline traffic by 2020. Easyjet alone already runs 20 flights from London to Geneva in the peak winter month
Unfortunately, while the joy of skiing may be the liberation from daily cares through closeness to nature, being bathed in dazzling whiteness does not mean that our winter holiday is clean.
When we think of an image that typifies the effects of climate change we may imagine a forlorn polar bear isolated on a floating ice sheet, or the side of a glacier crashing into the sea. Add to that a rusty ski lift, engine stopped, chairs swinging emptily above a grassy hill below.
All across the world’s ski resorts, global warming is hitting hard. Alpine temperatures have risen by 2C since the 1970s. Each year the season seems a little short, the runs a little less. Already European banks are refusing to offer loans to resorts under 1,500 metres, doubtful they will have enough snow to be viable before long. Closer to home in 2003 Glencoe, the first commercial ski resort in Britain, did not open at all.
Further warming in coming years is predicted to cause a 30% reduction in snow cover by 2020, rising to a 50% decline by the 2050s. As this happens, the snowline will recede higher and higher up the mountains, closing low lying resorts altogether and pushing skiers higher and higher up the mountains, which itself brings along a host of problems.
For one, the higher up the mountain everything is sited, the more expensive it is to get people there, bring food and drink up to them, and for staff and guests to travel to resorts and hotels. And so, just as the discount airlines make traveling to ski resorts cheaper, so in matter of years it may once again become the reserve of the few.
Furthermore, the higher up you go, the less affected by mankind the ecosystems are. All this would change for ever. Meanwhile moving the ski slopes uphill will also increase the risk of avalanches, already becoming more frequent due to climate change.
And the most common alternative to solution to loss of snow on lower slopes, namely using snow canons to create artificial snow, is no solution as far as the environment is concerned. One ski resort in the US estimates that running its snow machines uses as much power as the town’s 15,000-strong population.
Climate change may be the worst problem confronting the ski industry’s future, but it’s not the only problem skiers are causing today. For example, the nightly sight of snow machines rolling up the pistes may mean well maintained slopes for the following morning, but the noise of their engines and glare of their headlights disturbs mountain wildlife, much of which is already threatened and living in reduced habitat thanks to the spread of ski resorts. Being dropped from a helicopter onto an untouched mountain may seem the ultimate in romantic adventure, but it is one hell of a lot of petrol to burn into the atmosphere for an empty ski run. Even skiing off piste means cutting across habitats and feeding grounds of mountain wildlife.
Thankfully, as well as being more mindful ourselves when on the mountains, there are also increasing signs that the industry itself is waking up to the threat that climate changes poses to its own existence and also the opportunity that ‘green skiing’ provides. Skis made from renewable bamboo, Lift systems running on renewable energy, the banning of cars from certain mountain villages, solar panels heating our showers when we get back to the resort. By supporting these ventures and the many more on the following pages those of us who love to ski give us and our children the chance of doing it for many years to come.
What you can do
• Downhill skiing has the most negative impact as slopes take the most preparation, from the original clearing of trees to the nightly bash by the snowmachines. Consider a lower impact alternative such as cross country, skitouring or snowshowing.
• When you are skiing downhill, stick to the piste and leave the wilderness to the wild animals.
• If you are going to alps, take the snow train. It’s more comfortable, more fun and you’ll get longer skiing for the same time off work.
• Stay in locally run establishments and spend your money at locally run shops and restaurants
* Don’t buy expensive new ski-gear every season. Borrow from a friend, buy secondhand, use clothing you’d wear off the slopes.
• While in the UK, avoid skiing in snowdomes, which are environmental disaster zones. If you feel the need to ski on an artificial slope, go to the old fashioned ‘dry ski slopes’ or the newer ‘snowflex’ type.