Global warming in the Alps: a modern tale of Atlantis?

How climate change is threatening the Swiss Alps, its people, economy and culture.

There are few areas of human activity where the effects of climate change have been more noticeable to the public than the winter tourism industry in countries such as Switzerland.

The mountains: a source of life

Although the industry represents ~2% of national GDP[1], it is a vital source of economic activity and employment in many mountainous areas of the country, where its direct and indirect contribution to GDP and employment can be as high as 40%. In many areas faced with structural unemployment, jobs linked to tourism have been critical to retain young people who otherwise would have fled to lower, more urban areas, effectively condemning vast areas of the Alpine region to full abandonment2. Yet, the effect of climate change on the overall Alpine region, and specifically on Switzerland, are now threatening the long-term prospects of the winter tourism industry, and the livelihood of millions of people with it.

Switzerland’s specific topography with mountain regions and lowlands on both sides of the Alpine ridge has made climate change particular evident[2]: if the world’s average temperature has risen by 0.85° C between 1864 and 2011, in Switzerland the increment has been twice as much[3]. The effects on the Alpine environment is alarming: glaciers, for instance, have been retreating 2-3% per year, while the ratio of snowfalls over precipitation has decreased by as much as 40% below 800m[4]. Crucially, this trend is expected to worsen, increasing the altitude where snowfalls are reliable enough to justify skiing operations from 1,200m to 1,800m: only 44% of Swiss ski resorts would thus remain viable[5]. Simultaneously, climate change is causing precipitations to be less frequent, yet more violent, leading to an increase in natural catastrophes such as flooding, avalanches and landslides, and thus making the Alpine areas more dangerous and costly for human activity.

Verbier: a case in point

Verbier, a popular tourist destination in Western Switzerland with slopes between 1,500m and 3,330m[6], is seen as one of the most reliable skiing areas in Europe. Yet even here, climate change has showed its impact: summer skiing on the Tortin glacier was closed in 1997 due to the glacier’s reduction – more than 1km over the last century – and increasing instability[7]. Since then, the resort has tried to slow down the melting process by covering the snow in a protective textile[8], but with limited results.

Like many other resorts in the area, Verbier has tried to fight back. Snowmaking, for instance, is now an critical feature of the Swiss resorts’ strategy, with 36% of slopes[9] equipped to that end. Yet, this is a costly solution – a km costs more than CHF 600,000 per year – as well as energy and water intensive. For this reason, its use is restricted to cold days at the beginning of the season.

A second strategy has been to diversify the offer. Verbier and most resorts now offer a wide range of activities, including high-end spas, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. Summer activities represent an important opportunity, with mountain biking and hiking topping the list. However revenues from May to October can barely match what is made in one day in February.

What future for the industry?

It is hence clear that the skiing industry will have to change to adapt to this new reality. If some say that over the short-term many Swiss resorts might actually benefit from climate change due to their higher altitude, the benefits might be short-lived: as skiing resorts become fewer, costlier and harder to access, the number of new skiers is likely to fall, thus slashing overall demand. From a climate change perspective, this could be a good thing: skiing itself is an important contributor to climate change, with millions of people flying or driving to the Alps to be shuttled to the mountaintops on power-hungry lifts.

Yet, the consequences on the local population and the environment would be disastrous: after a long and rich history of inhabiting these remote regions, millions would be left with no source of income and forced to flee, leaving the mountains in neglect and paving the way for future natural catastrophes.

For those who live in the Alps, skiing is much more than just a sport.

 

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glacier-du-rhone
Source: https://www.letemps.ch/suisse/2015/11/19/rechauffement-climatique-transforme-alpes

[1] UBS, “La Suisse en chiffres, édition 2016/2017 », p. 6

[2] Vielle & Gonseth, “Modeling climate change adaptation in a computable general equilibrium model: An application to tourism”, Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, 2011

[3] Swiss Federal Environment Office, “Le réchauffement climatique est déjà visible”, August 20, 2015,
http://www.bafu.admin.ch/klima/13805/15238/15359 , accessed in November 2016

[4] Serquet, Marty, Dulex, Rebetez, “Seasonal trends and temperature dependence of the snowfall/precipitation day ratio in Switzerland”, Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 38, 2011

[5] Elsasser & Buerki, “Climate change as a threat to tourism in the alps”, Climate Research, 2002, pp. 20(3), 253-257,

[6] Verbier Official Website, https://www.verbinet.com/maps, accessed November 3, 2016

[7] Xavier Lambiel, “Comment le réchauffement climatique transforme les Alpes”, Le Temps, November 19, 2015

[8] Edwards, “Going green on the white stuff”, Financial Times, Nov 27, 2006

[9] Serquet, Thalmann, “Impacts des changements climatiques pour le tourisme à Verbier”, 2012

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3 thoughts on “Global warming in the Alps: a modern tale of Atlantis?

  1. I just skied the Alps for the first time last year, and was shocked at how climate change seemed ingrained into the local conversation. On several occasions I heard from skiers and hotel proprietors how snowfall is declining and is sadly getting worse each year. Many in the local population seemed resigned to this fact and also bitter that their predicament was caused by factors beyond their control.

    When I think of snow-making, I think of the resorts in Dubai that are trying to bring winter weather to the middle of the desert. To me, snowmaking is most viable on small mountains near New England where skiers expect treacherous and icy conditions, but I can’t imagine the cost and energy-intensiveness of snow-making on the scale of the Alps, especially given that skiers are likely used to and probably demand access to fluffy natural powder. Snow-making just doesn’t seem environmentally sustainable, and I agree that resorts will need to shift towards more warm-weather and summer activities to sustain their balance sheets. I found a few interesting facts on snow-making in the United States. In the 2009-10 ski season, 88 percent of resorts belonging to the National Ski Areas Association were also using snowmaking to supplement natural snow with a cost of $500,000 annually per resort. Snowmaking accounted for about 50 percent of each resort’s energy costs [1].

    Citations:
    Burakowski, E., Magnusson, M. Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States. National Resources Defense Council. December 2012.

  2. Super fascinating read! From my perspective, ski resorts are probably very interested in ensuring that they can be used all four seasons so anything that they can do to mitigate climate change means more benefits throughout the year. It was interesting to learn what Verbier is doing. They need to invest in whatever makes them successful in the off-seasons (or attempt to become more popular in the off-seasons) in order to keep themselves relevant as we move into the future.

    While making snow is expensive, it seems inevitable. Snow resorts should definitely be investing more into R&D about how to best (and cheaply) manufacture snow as well as retain it in ideal form (soft and mushy rather than hard and icy). The more research and investment they into technology here, the better prepared they will be for the future.

    On a related note, I feel like Snow Resorts are in a unique position where they can make investments in other areas outside of skiing/snowboarding technology to have an impact on climate change. For example, the city of Zermatt in Switzerland has transportation that is a fully battery driven and almost completely silent. Their concern was air pollution related to the Matterhorn and tourism, and they invested in that very early but now I believe that all snow resorts should be thinking about creating ski towns that are filled with only combustion-engine car-free zones [1]. It’s another draw to these little towns, and it could help continue to keep these snow towns successful while sustainable.

    Awesome post! Thanks!

    [1] http://zermatt.com/history-of-electric-bus-in-zermatt/

  3. Roberto, thanks for an enlightening read. I am particularly intrigued by the effect of climate change on regional cultures and demographies. You mentioned that the prospect of working in tourism was what helped retain a lot of the young people in the Swiss Alps communities. As climate change increasingly challenges those tourism industries, it is bound to push those communities to relocate to other locales in search of work. Consequently, there is a chance of straining the resources and balance of the surrounding micro-economies.

    We see similar changes in Bangladesh, where, because of increasing sea levels, people are being forced to migrate further and further north, and that has produced some of the densest cities in the world. Therefore, in addition to trying to preserve the historical climate of the alps, it might be worth looking into how to help the local communities make the best of the changing conditions, so that they are able stay near their homes but still be financially unburdened.

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