In future, the lack of snow could be even more widespread in European ski areas than previously assumed. So far, for example in Germany, ski areas in the low mountain ranges in particular have been considered endangered by the climate. But even those higher in the Alps are not safe from a lack of snow, as a new one in the specialist journal NatureClimate Change published study shows. If the global temperature were to rise by just two degrees by the end of the century, which should not be relied on with the current measures, 53 percent of European ski resorts would have a very high risk of acute snow shortage. If it were to warm up by four degrees, it would be 98 percent.
According to the researchers’ definition, a very high risk means that at least every second year snow-poor conditions occur as was the case only every fifth year in the reference period from 1961 to 1990. The exception is thus becoming the norm in the affected areas. In total, the team, led by Hugues François, examined 2234 European ski resorts. With the help of computer simulations, different scenarios with different temperature increases were considered.
Artificial snow can solve part of the problem – but creates new ones in the process
The problem can be mitigated somewhat with artificial snow. If half of the area were covered with snow, every fourth area would still be under serious threat if the temperature rises by two degrees, and two out of three if it rises to four degrees. You could most likely still be skiing or snowboarding in Switzerland and Austria. But artificial snow has a high price, especially in climate change, as the researchers emphasize: the demand for water and electricity is increasing.
If the earth warms up by just 1.5 degrees, the picture will change. Only a little more than a third of the ski areas examined would then be at high risk. This number could be further reduced by using snow machines. But whether the 1.5 degree target can still be achieved is very questionable. To achieve this, greenhouse gas emissions would have to be drastically reduced in all areas by 2030, according to this year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In general, researchers are skeptical about the use of snow cannons. While artificial snow may help some ski resorts keep their operations running, it also increases water and energy consumption. Around three million liters of water are used per hectare of artificial snow during the season – that’s around 20,000 full bathtubs. Even under earlier conditions, the scientists estimate that the average water consumption for a slope, including artificial snow, was about 13 percent of the precipitation that falls there in one year. In a warmer climate, demand would increase significantly. The demand for electricity is also increasing.
However, the operation of facilities such as lifts and snow machines only accounts for an estimated two to four percent of the total CO₂ footprint of a ski area, while at least half, and in some cases more than 80 percent, is attributable to skiers’ travel and local transport. Nevertheless, the researchers emphasize that snowmaking contributes to an increase in tourism, because without snow there are no skiers. The study encourages a reassessment of whether it is wise to maintain a heavy reliance on winter tourism in certain areas, said an accompanying commentary in NatureClimate Changeespecially because of the energy needs of industry and the scarcity of water in mountain areas that are already ecologically vulnerable.