Make Chamonix ski slopes white again

With global warming reducing snowfall, Chamonix ski station tries to reinvent its model

Global winter sport industry is a $70b market [1]. This industry, which heavily relies on ski tourism, and hence on snowfall levels, is hit by climate change even more violently than any other industry. In the French Alps, by 2005, temperatures had increased three times the global average [2]. A good example of the critical impact of global warming on the ski industry can be found in Vallée de Chamonix – Montblanc, a major ski resort located in the French Alps.

With 2,5M visitors per year, 116 km of slopes, and the highest mount in Europe (Mont blanc, 4,810m), Vallée de Chamonix – Montblanc is a major ski resort and tourist destination in France [3]. However, since several years, the domain is severely hit by the effects of global warming. In the late 19th century, the average temperature in Chamonix was 9,6°C. Today, the average is around 10,8°C [8]. As a result, snow often arrives later in the year, does not stay as long as before, and is of a decreased quality. In 2015, 42% of Chamonix’s 507 ski runs were closed during the holidays [2].

To mitigate temperature’s increase and its impact on snowfall and tourism, Vallée de Chamonix – Montblanc has launched a series of initiatives, and could go even further by following the examples of other ski resorts.

No snow? Let’s make it ourselves!

Thanks to snowmaking installations, it has been partly possible to cope with the problem posed by the shortened ski season due to the lack of natural snow.

Chamonix was one of the first French ski domains to install snow canons. Between 2002 and 2014, Chamonix has invested 7,3M€, i.e. 0,8% of its 2014 revenue, in new snowmaking equipment [5]. Technology has improved to make it more environment friendly, thanks to the use of compressed air instead of chemical products to freeze water. But the cost of this technology is high: 1m3 would cost between 3 and 5€ (including amortization, energy and personnel cost), and the average investment is 650 000€ per each km of ski run. Besides, snow-making equipment consumes water and energy, further contributing to global warming [6].

Other technologies exist in other stations, that Chamonix could also explore. For example, Davos, in Switzerland, is experimenting snow farming technique, which consists in installing snow fences to create drifts and collect more snow than would otherwise naturally occur. Other domains like the Rhone glacier in Switzerland, wrap their glaciers in insulating blankets.

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A Swiss flag floats on the Rhone Glacier which has been covered with insulating foam to be protected from the sun on July 14, 2015 near Gletsch, Switzerland. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

 

However, all these initiatives are only short-term solutions, and won’t allow Chamonix to fight long-term global warming effects. To do that, the resort needs to deeply rethink its entire model.

No snow? There is a whole lot more to life than skiing!

To continue to attract tourists even when snow falls do not allow skiing, most stations, including Chamonix, have tried to diversify the activities they offer to visitors, to become less dependent from snow conditions, and become a “4 seasons destination”. In Chamonix, this includes offering scenic tours to view Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest mountain, ice skating, swimming-pool, all included in the unlimited ski pass, allowing to increase the sales of these passes by 15% despite declining levels of snow [2].

However, the attractiveness of these activities is seriously threatened by the competition of other sunny destinations, now easily reachable by plane.

No snow? Let’s fight the root cause: global warming itself!

The ultimate long-term solution for ski resorts is to fight temperature increases, by implementing environmentally-friendly initiatives, to minimize the environmental impact and improve tourists’ awareness. On this side Chamonix is a precursor.

In 2010, Chamonix launched the Climate and Energy action plan, the first in the French Alps. It is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the area by 22% by 2020. The measures do not include only the ski activity, but also transport, urbanism and waste management measures [7].

In 2011, Chamonix was part of the 4 mountain resorts in the French Alps which launched the “Flocon Vert” (Green flake) label, which aims at being a tool for the sustainable development of mountain resorts, with a specific focus on winter destinations. To join this label, candidates have to respect a number of transport, planning, energy, water, social and territory criteria [6].

 

The future of skiing in Chamonix is compromised, but the city can rely on its natural assets and large financial capabilities to cope with global warming effects on the short term. Lower stations with less financial means could however not have the same chance, and their future is much more compromised. According to OECD, within 15 years, 25% of the region’s ski areas will be unable to offer reliable skiing conditions, and by 2050 the number will rise to almost 40% [4]. Like Chamonix, ski resorts need to take strong initiatives to fight climate change impact.

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Notes and references

[1] The Guardian, Why snow machines are cold comfort as the Alps warm, Friday 7 November 2014

[2] The New York Times, For French Ski Resorts, a Scramble to Offset Snow Deficit

[3] http://www.123savoie.com/chamonix-mont-blanc, consulted on 11/03/2016

[4] BusinessWeek, Europe’s endangered slopes, 18/12/2016

[5] M. Falk, L. Vanat, Ecological Economics 130 (2016) 339-349, Gains from investments in snowmaking facilities

[6] S. Duglio, R. Beltramo, Sustainability Journal, Environmental Management and Sustainable Labels in the Ski Industry: A Critical Review

[7] https://www.cc-valleedechamonixmontblanc.fr/index.php/la-communaute/grands-programmes.html, consulted on 11/03/2016

[8] The Guardian, A glorious winter, but the Alps face a warmer world – bringing huge change, 03/30/2013

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7 thoughts on “Make Chamonix ski slopes white again

  1. Very interesting post! In addition, I wonder if there’s any environmental impact of making snow and how they plan to offset it. In addition to snow farming and wrapping the snow in blankets, I wonder if they could invest in a technology to keep the ground colder to retain the snow. For example, many driveways now use heaters under the cement to warm the concrete and melt the snow. I think the ski resorts could do the opposite.

    I also think that becoming a 4 season destination will be very important for them, but I think they should also think about indoor activities such as water parks and indoor rock climbing because climate change doesn’t just mean warmer weather, it means more extreme weather.

  2. As a big fan of Chamonix in all four seasons, I am happy to know that they took a conscious decision to push towards this direction. I believe with Chamonix’s pioneering act, other major resorts will be inspired and hence together make a greater impact. “HBS2018” had a good suggestion of developing more indoor activities, however, Chamonix’s strengths lie in its outdoor beauty and stunning nature, and so it is still better to focus on offering a wider array of outdoor entertainment options.

    1. I totally agree, I think that it is wonderful the impact yet sacrificing on indoor activities is a particularly dismal and sad alternative.

  3. Great post! In addition to the suggestions made above I believe the accountability to reduce the impact of climate change in resorts can also be shared by both the resort owners and the individual skiers themselves. For example, in the Three Valleys ski area in France (Meribel, Courchevel and Val Thorens), publicity campaigns urge skiers to cut their own carbon footprints by travelling to the resorts by lower emission trains versus higher emission planes and turning off their lights at night in the resort. Similarly, in the Portes du Soleil, Switzerland, skiers are encouraged to use ‘Alpine Pearls’ which are a form of ‘clean mobility’ transportation.

  4. Super fascinating read! I love that you wrote about Chamonix as it is one of the few resorts I’ve ever visited and I fell in love. Totally agree with HBS2018, that the resort is 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. Snow resorts should definitely be investing more into R&D about how to best manufacture snow as well as retain it in ideal form (soft and mushy rather than hard and icy).

    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 to have an impact on climate change. For example, Zermatt’s transportation 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 combustion-engine car-free zones [1]. There’s a lot that snow resorts can do to keep the industry successful while sustainable.

    Awesome post! Thanks!

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

  5. Interesting! However, the use of technology can only help ski resorts up to a limited extent, snow from cannons will melt quicker as temperatures rise and there are not enough blankets to cover the Alps. I agree with CC that a more direct intervention on the ski community and their habits both on- and off-season is an idea worth pursuing.

    Also, considering the switch to a 4 seasons destinations, Chamonix and other businesses based in the Alps should educate more the general public on how their behavior is affecting the entire alpine scenery year-round, not only in winter. This should also aim at putting more public pressure on politicians, so they approve stricter emissions and pollution controls. It’s the only way we will be able to preserve such a scenery for future generations.

  6. Great post and very thoughtful suggestions! I completely agree with some of the posts above that Chamonix and other ski resorts need to take a holistic approach to climate change and focus on technological innovations, diversifying revenue through a four-seasons model, and reducing carbon footprint from transportation.

    In addition to the suggestions above, large resorts such as Chamonix also have the opportunity to design environmental policies for their purchasing departments. [1] Vail Resorts is a good example of a resort that formalized its environmental purchasing policies for all vendor contracts, which includes purchasing green cleaning products, recycled paper and printing purchases for lift tickets, and sustainable lighting for the hotels at the resort. By formally including environmental clauses in its vendor contracts, Chamonix can not only have a lasting positive impact at the resort itself, but it will also force the vendors it works with to adopt environmentally friendly practices, which can have a positive network effect. Chamonix can also look into partnerships with retailers and other resorts in the area to establish recycling programs to take back used ski and snowboard equipment for shredding and eventual reuse of materials. Finally, established and popular resorts like Chamonix have an opportunity to take a leadership role in fighting climate change because of its visibility to millions of tourists each year. For example, the resort can create awareness of the problem and communicate solutions to the tourists that visit the resort by participating in or launching industry wide initiatives, such as the NRDC and NCAA “Keep Winter Cool” initiative in the U.S. [2]

    [1] National Ski Areas Association, “Taking Sustainable Slopes to the Next Level”, http://www.nsaa.org/media/21036/SS_Next_Steps_Guide.pdf, accessed November 2016.

    [2] Natural Resources Defense Counsel, “Ski Areas Team With Conservation Group to Fight Global Warming”, https://www.nrdc.org/media/2004/040219, accessed November 2016.

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