Meltdown for European Skiing?

On the day when Kyoto Treaty busting President Bush is set for another four years we have been studying two reports on climate change and considering their impact on the future of skiing.

Both are more pessimistic than previous studies on global warming, at least for Europe. The European Enviroment Agency (AEE) has based its study on 8 categories : atmospheric and climate, glaciers, snow and ice, marine ecosystems, land-based ecosystems and biodiversity, water, agriculture, economic and human health.

Jacqueline McGlade, the executive director of the AEE says that the report “gathers a multitude of evidence showing that climate change is already in progress and that it will have widespread and costly implications for Europe”

According to the statistics the last 10 years have been the hottest on record with 1998, 2002 and 2003 in pole position. Indications are that temperatures are rising quicker in Europe compared to the average for the planet. Warming has been of the order of +0.95°C over the previous century with forecasts of between 2 to 6.3°C by 2100. CO2 levels in the lower atmosphere are at their highest for at least 420,000 years. Some pessimists say for 20 million years. The Kyoto protocol proposes reducing emissions of the six main greenhouse gases by 5.2%. 123 states, excluding the USA, have ratified the treaty.

The report claims that climate change is already affecting Europe. Eleven countries suffered severe flooding in 2002 and last year 20,000, largely old people, died in a severe heat wave. Over the same summer European glaciers lost 10% of their mass. Climate specialists think 75% of Swiss glaciers will have vanished within 50 years. Sea levels are currently rising by 0.8-3mm per year and this is expected to accelerate. Flora and fauna have been completely disorientated by the changes in climate. Some species of plant will die out, particularly in mountainous regions. On the other hand the growing season is 10 days longer compared to the 1960s. Migrating birds, like famous Max the Stork seem to appreciate the European warmer winters and are flourishing.

The report states that by 2080 that winter will be extinct in Europe, at least cold winters. This will obviously have an effect on skiing. In certain areas, notably the Isère department in France the Regional Council is trying to wean 15 mid-mountain ski reports off skiing, transforming the areas into ‘mountain resorts’.

A second report is a four-year scientific study undertaken by a group of 300 researchers for the Arctic Council. The Council comprises the eight nations, the USA included, holding Arctic territories. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) report projects a two to three times greater rate of warming for the Artic compared to the rest of the world. The report also sees consequences for the physical, ecological and human systems including rising sea-levels and faster climate change due to positive feedback mechanisms. Snow and ice reflect most of the sunlight back into space, when these white surfaces go radiation is absorbed into land and water increasing the rate of warming. Jennifer Morgan of the World Wildlife Fund puts it starkly, “The big melt has begun”. She thinks industrialized countries should cut emissions of CO2 now.

The report has run 5 different climate models. These predict a 50 to 60% loss of ice in the artic region by 2100 and one model suggests that the ice cap will completely melt by 2070, at least during the summer months. The oil industry thinks that the lack of ice will help it explore and exploit the oil fields in the region where it is believed that around a quarter of the earth’s reserves are located. It will also open the shorter North-West passage route to Asia.

The United Nations Environment Program predicts that hundreds of ski resorts will have to shut down as a consequence of global warming. The Austrian snowline may rise by 300 metres over the next 30 years and it is possible that all of Australia’s nine ski areas will close by 2070. American resorts situated high in the Rockies may escape relatively unscathed, at least in the short term.

Dr David Stephenson, head of climate research at the Reading University, suggests that although low lying European ski resorts may be wiped out there will be greater precipitation at altitude. Already ski resorts are moving uphill. Intrawest has built a new village at 1950 meters in Les Arcs, l’Alpe d’Huez is investing in its high altitude area and a new resort, Porte des Neiges is planned high in the Pyrenees close to Andorra. These developments, often close to national parks, are controversial as they impact the most ecologically sensitive areas of the mountains. Global warming will also melt the permafrost that holds the European Alps together. Guides consider the Eiger so unstable they caution against the famous North-Face route. Infrastructure including buildings and ski lifts will also be affected. The new Grand Fond Funitel in Val Thorens already requires major works due to the melting of the ice that cements its foundation bedrock. Changing vegetaton in the mountains may also have an impact on avalanches.

So is Kyoto the answer to the ski industries worst nightmares? A study organized by skeptical environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg in Copenhagen last week asked 38 of the world’s top economists to set a list of the global priorities. The economists thought that that Aids, hunger, free trade and malaria were the world’s top priorities ahead of climate change. Lomborg says that we have already dealt with rising global sea-levels over the last hundred years. He argues that Kyoto will cost more than $150bn a year with only marginal effects by 2100. Too little, too late to save European skiing.

Global Warming and Skiing - special report.

Posted by davidof on Wednesday, 03 November, 2004 at 11:25 PM

We have had quite a bit of feedback about this article already with a lot of criticism of its ‘alarmist tone’. Some people have commented that ‘a couple of degrees temperature rise will only move the snowline 300 meters. However the projections are talking about average temperature rises. What they also predict is a more unstable climate with more summer heatwaves and more winters with little snow and high temperatures. As we saw in the late 1980s many French resorts would be unable to survive a series of poor winters.

In Switzerland an IPCC report says that the number of resorts that are classified as snow reliable, that is they have 7 good winters out of 10, will drop from 85% to 44%. If any other industry lost 50% of its capacity then it would be dubbed a meltdown.

An average temperature rise of 2C will also mean more volatility during the winter months with more rain at high altitude. Rainfall has a very bad effect on snow cover.

Some people have commented that resorts simply need to move to higher altitudes. It should be remembered that most ski resorts in France, including high altitude domains, have their lower pistes and a lot of skiing at 1500-1800 meters. Exploiting high altitudes is possible and as we have mentioned some resorts are already moving in this direction but many recreational skiers already have difficulty with the altitude in existing domains. There is also much less exploitable mountain at high altitudes and much of it lies within national parks.

Finally the Meteo France Crocus model has predicted a reduction in precipitation of 50% at 1800 meters if there is a doubling of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from 1995 levels.

Posted by davidof on  Monday, 08 November, 2004  at 01:47 AM
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