The option of an artificial snow slope in the middle of a green valley will be something that winter sports enthusiasts will have to get used to, according to Marie Cavitte, a glaciologist at UCLouvain who warns that skiing on a naturally created piste may become impossible in the coming years due to climate change.
With rising temperatures and increased rain precipitation, mountains will lose their snow coverage in the years to come and the effects of climate change are already being seen on the popular slopes of Europe, she told RTBF. Relatively high temperatures during the past few weeks have impacted skiers who have arrived at their favourite resorts to see green slopes and artificial snow blowers on full blast.
"Unfortunately, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has made it clear that we should not expect an improvement,” Cavitte said.
"Some might think that is good news, that more precipitation means more snow. However, as the temperature also increases, we will expect more rain. But projections also show that in our regions, especially the Western Alps, where many Belgians go skiing, mountains will be drying up in the future. So, no, there will be no turning back."
Plugging the holes
Behind this sobering environmental observation, an entire economic sector is in danger and will need to adapt. Families who went to the mountains during this winter vacation rented mountain bikes rather than skis. Should these predictions come true, the skiing sector is bound to disappear in the resorts frequented by Belgians because many are located under 1600 metres above sea level.
"In France, more or less half of the stations are of low or medium altitude,” said Cavitte. “However, at altitudes below 1600 metres, there will be no more snow in 10 to 20 years. And using snow cannons only postpones the problem. It's consuming a lot of water and emitting a lot of carbon just to perpetuate an activity that is doomed to disappear."
Snow cannons, if they can be of some help to "plug the holes" during certain periods, cannot provide snow for an entire season. "It's pretty silly, it's a cannon that sprays compressed air and water, and in contact with cold air — so it only works when it's at least -2°C, not when it's 10 degrees — it produces snow that falls to the ground," Cavitte explained.
In addition to the temperature problem, snow cannons also pose an ecological concern. " You have to know that one of these things pumps out a lot of water,” she added. “It's more or less 4,000 cubic metres per hectare of snow covered and it corresponds to four times the amount of water used to irrigate a cornfield, for example."
"If we count all the snow cannons in France, they represent the annual water consumption of all the inhabitants of Liège and Charleroi combined, so it's still a lot of water. And as far as electricity is concerned, it corresponds more or less to a month of electricity consumption in a large city like Liège, so it is not trivial. After that, what you have to think about is that snow cannons are only a small part of the pollution created at the resorts."
Skiing is indeed often sold as a "nature" activity but in reality, it is a sport that requires a lot of logistics, and those come with a large carbon footprint. Slopes are maintained through snow grooming, a process of manipulating snow for recreational uses with a tractor, snowmobile, piste caterpillar, truck or snowcat towing specialised equipment.
"Groomers represent 60% of the carbon emissions of an area while snow cannons represent only 25%,” the glaciologist said. “Running a ski resort can therefore have a big environmental impact."
Covering the glaciers
On the village side too, the carbon footprint is mainly due to the combustion of fossil energy to get around. The transport to get to the resort, "the hotels, the way they operate, the food that must suddenly be produced, not for a village of a few hundred inhabitants but now for thousands of inhabitants. So all this contributes to the big impact."
"It's ultimately mass tourism and we know the impact mass tourism has on the environment in general." To preserve skiing at all costs, some countries are coming up with even more polluting solutions: covering the glaciers, upstream, with a white plastic sheet.
"There is one in Italy and I have seen four in Switzerland, for example,” Cavitte said. “In fact, they cover them with tarpaulins in summer because we know that a glacier that is white reflects more of the sun's energy, and therefore tends to melt less. So, as the glaciers shrink, we think that if we put on white tarps, they will shrink a little less in the summer, there is more chance that they will make it to the winter and then we will have a better slope to ski on."
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The problem is once again the snow groomers, but also and above all, the microplastics that these tarps will leave. "They are plastic sheeting made of polymers. And so, when you remove the tarpaulins, there are still plenty of fibres from these polymers that accumulate on the glacier or that fly away and pollute the surrounding nature with microplastics."
"So, we pollute to put the tarpaulins and remove them, but also via the materials used. Again, it is just a matter of postponing a problem that is only going to happen, but by polluting more. And that's the problem."
"Glaciers are melting quickly and the IPCC report projects that by 2100, 94% of the glaciers in the European Alps will have disappeared. That's pretty huge. And the problem with precipitation in the form of rain is that it accelerates the melting of these glaciers. Also, when there is snow cover and there is a rain event afterwards in the ski resorts, it melts the snow twice as fast."