After two weeks in scorching Melbourne I return to a Narnia-esque Switzerland, the forests suddenly buried in depths of marshmallow-textured snow, and kids tobogganing down the slopes of what used to be cows’ grazing grounds. I guess that’s the image most people conjure up in their minds when they think of Switzerland. Yet despite the powdered pines and icy footpaths, November of 2016 was amongst the warmest here since the 19th century, and December was the driest Switzerland has seen since 1965. Sure, it’s snowing today in Zurich and the Australian in me is convinced I will soon die a sombre death of hypothermia, yet by Swiss standards, this is lukewarm.
So something very interesting is happening here at the moment: people are debating whether the central-European ski industry’s hey-day is over. Climate scientists and sustainable tourism experts are rousing the question: is ski finished in central Europe? while hoteliers and ski resort operators are praying for more of the white stuff to grace their pistes.
New research carried out by the University of Neuchâtel, the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF and the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL bears bad news. In comparing data from between 2016 and 1970, they found that the average snow season now kicks off a whole 12 days later, and rounds up 25 days prematurely. If that doesn’t hurt your inner snow-bunny more than falling on icy concrete when you were expecting to land elegantly on feathery powder, how about this: annual maximum snow depth has decreased by 25 percent on average since 1970.
The tardy season hasn’t only hit this land-locked cuckoo-clock nation. In Austria like in Switzerland, artificial snow is sprinkled over 50% of ski fields. In France, the Chamonix Tourism board, although claiming to be “very sensitive to ecological problems”, are still having to churn out the imitation precipitation in order to satisfy their visitors’ demands. Anne Bosvieux, who works as an instructor at Chamonix, direly hopes that the snow falling at the moment will “resolve the problem”.
Yet the problem penetrates deeper than just another winter being put temporary on hold. It goes further than the carry-on effects of more concentrated peak tourist times later in the season. When the ramifications of the dilapidated snow season really hit home is when you take into account the energy required to power all the cannons over a season: enough to fuel a small town, as Pro Natura concedes. Is it any wonder that Switzerland’s beloved and Europe’s most colossal glacier, the Aletsch Glacier, is thawing out at such a rate that it’s expected to have ebbed – possibly even disappeared – by the end of the 21st century?
So what does this mean for the central-European alpine tourism industry? Well, Vincent Riba from Verbier Tourism is one to admit, “it’s obvious that all of the Swiss stations couldn’t perpetually survive on such penurious winters.” They therefore have the clear goal of increasing the amount of summer visitors, without having to transform the mountain into a theme park. As Verbier Tourism recognises the need to differentiate themselves from competitors, they don’t shy away from acknowledging the evidence: “the model needs to be reconsidered”. In Europe, many of the commercial models of ski stations were principally or even exclusively built with the objective to ski, like for example Val Thorens in France, Europe’s highest ski resort. Verbier Tourism explains that the majority of ski stations hence survive on the snow season alone, which for the Swiss resorts represents a huge 80% of their business turnover.
However, Switzerland was initially a summer holiday destination, notably for mountaineering, of which Thomas Cook was one of the pioneers. Only in the 1960’s did a winter fever rouse up in foreign travellers’ lusting hearts and the development of touristic ski stations begin to take course. At the moment, many ski stations are shifting their gaze back to the Thomas Cook era, so that their mountain hubs aren’t increasingly contingent on the profits made in the hibernal periods.
The Wengen region, for example, estimated a drop of about 10% of visitors in the last week of December and over the New Year. The managing director for Wengen Tourism, Rolf Wegmüller, outlines that this was precisely because there wasn’t enough snow, despite deploying every single one of their snow cannons. Thankfully for him, “Wengen and the whole Jungfrau Region is a very attractive spot for international tourists. It offers a huge variety of excursions such as the lakes and to the high snowy mountain-peaks in a very small place,” all year round.
Yet Rolf is lucky and Wengen is an outlier. For the rest it’s a slippery slope as to how many snow cannons can be fired up seasonally before their negative ecological impacts further contribute to future waning seasons, and the greater consequences of climate change beyond the snowfields.
As Mr Wegmüller discloses the possible answer: it will take “the investment in new snow-making machines and infrastructure [to] be up to date with any other resorts.” A Band-Aid solution that will produce a snowball effect until eventually there is no real snow left to land on.