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A slippery slope

November 22, 2011

Climate change has long reached the world's mountaintops in the form of melting glaciers and less snowfall. Ski resorts often use artificial snow to maintain white slopes but the move creates environmental problems too.

A ski lift against a night sky
Ski resorts these days are increasingly high-techImage: AP

For many Alpine regions, winter sports tourism is the mainstay of their economies. The resort of Sölden in Austria, for example, is geared almost entirely to ski tourists. It has a population of 4,100 and some 15,000 hotel beds.

With two million hotel stays each year, this Tyrolean mountain village is one of the country’s top three tourist destinations.

In order to accommodate the growing number of visitors, the resort's authorities have built the world’s largest double cable lift at a cost of 38 million Euros ($51 million). It opened in early 2011 and can transport up to 3,600 people every hour to the Gaislachkogel mountain peak.

Giving nature a helping hand

It’s not the only attraction designed to keep the skiers coming. The resort uses over 100 snow-making canons to ensure the slopes are covered with artificial white stuff when the weather hasn’t obliged. Across Europe, some 3,100 snow canons are regularly pressed into service to supplement natural snow and create wintry conditions.

A snow canon on a snowy slope
Snow canons supply snow when the weather disappointsImage: CC/pilot_micha

While the technology is welcomed by winter sports enthusiasts, it’s far from popular with environmentalists. Snow canons are notorious energy guzzlers. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), these artificial snow machines use around one million liters of water per hectare each year, a figure comparable to the water needs of a major city like Hamburg.

The snow canons are also estimated to use some 260,000 megawatts of electricity - an amount that could supply a city with a population of 150,000.

Skiing - out of fashion?

But the high consumption of energy is not the only reason why Christine Margraf from Bund Naturschutz, a nature conservation association in Bavaria, strongly opposes the use of snow canons.

"(They make) the piste white when it’s green everywhere else,” the longtime skier points out. “What sort of a skiing experience is that?”

The artificial snow systems have a huge impact on the environment, she says. Pipes need to be laid and reservoirs built. Artificial snow also has a different consistency than natural snow. Its higher density and freezing level damage the vegetation by depriving it of oxygen. Not only that. The noise emitted by the snow canons when they’re deployed at night unsettle wildlife and disturb their biorhythms.

"It’s not just the slopes that should have to adapt to the skiers; the skiers have to adapt to the slopes too,” says Christine Margraf. "Sooner or later, global warming will make skiing obsolete.”

A ski lift against a backdrop off hills
Only the slopes are whiteImage: CC/Killington Resort

Margraf points to a 2006 OECD study that has shown that were average temperatures to rise by four degrees, Germany would be left with just one ski resort on the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in the country.

The study also revealed that even though the tourism industry is adjusting gradually to climate change, the process is proving costly and moreover has obvious limitations.

Bright spots

Sometimes the winter sports industry is also guilty of blatant excesses. Take the indoor ski slope in Dubai, one of the biggest in the world. It relies on enormous blast coolers to chill the outside air, which in the United Arab Emirates can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), to minus ten degrees Celsius.

Conservations are also voicing growing concern about the environmental impact of the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia.

But it’s not all bad news. In some winter sports regions, progress is being made to reconcile climate protection with tourism.

In Aspen in the US state of Colorado, for example, authorities have long switched to sustainable energy. The aim is to reduce the local ski industry’s CO2 emissions by 10 percent by 2012 and by 25 percent by 2020 – compared with levels in 2000.

A hydroelectric power plant has been built to supply the region with green electricity, ski lifts are powered with energy bought from wind farms and external lighting has been switched to energy-saving LED technology.

Taking the train to the slopes

In Europe too, ski resorts are making efforts to go green. As early as the 1970s, the resort of Serfaus in Austria banned cars from the town center and began ferrying visitors to the ski lifts in buses. In 1985, an underground train line with four stops was opened. At 1.3 kilometers, it’s the second shortest underground line in the world.

"It’s not like it was in the 1970s, when everything was mowed down with bulldozers, ” says Stefan Mangott, CEO of the local ski lift company.

An underground station sign lit up
In Sölden, skiers can take the train to the ski liftImage: Po Keung Cheung

Today, strict environmental regulations are in place and the local population is more than willing to oblige, since they’re well aware the rules are in their own interests. And as Mangott says, only one percent of Tirol is used for skiing.

Going green is good PR

"Winter sports can be compatible with environmental protection,” says Ulrike Pröbstl from the University for Agricultural Sciences in Vienna.

On behalf of the foundation "Pro Natura – Pro Ski", she works as a consultant to Alpine tourism regions from Slovenia to France. Her first priority is to teach them that going green makes economic sense.

"It’s good PR", says Pröbstl. "15 percent of winter sports fans are thinking in terms of the environment even when it comes to making their bookings. A further 45 percent can be reached via advertising.”

For years, "Pro Natura – Pro Ski" has been auditing ski regions to monitor whether EU environmental standards are being maintained. The group investigates a host of factors. What are resorts doing to ensure environmental protection? How is water consumption being reduced? How are the slopes cultivated in summer?

Skiers on the slopes
Winter sports has yet to properly address environmental concernsImage: CC/E01

If the ski regions are found to be up to the mark, they received coveted certification for good environmental management.

Po Keung Cheung (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar