French Resort in the Pyrenees Sparks Debate on the Transportation of Snow to Ski Slopes by Helicopter

Luchon-Superbagnères is a ski resort whose summit rests amongst a chain of mountains and glaciers along the crest of the French Pyrenees. Last month, the resort used a helicopter to transport approximately fifty tons of snow to its bare, snowless slopes so that it could remain open during the height of tourist season when the holidays brought a heavy influx of guests to the ski schools. 

Temperatures hovered above 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) in the region, making it too warm to even operate the snow-making machines. So, at a cost of about 5,000 euros, the local council delivered snow from farther up in the mountains to cover the beginner slopes. The director of the local council, Hervé Pounau, claimed this decision would protect the jobs of eighty people, including ski lift operators, rental shop workers, and ski school instructors. Though he admitted the solution was not ecologically sound, Pounau insisted they had no other choice.

“Because of the economic loss that would have followed the closure of the ski resort, French news outlets have echoed support from many local stakeholders,” said Samuel Morin, a researcher at Météo-France, the head of the Snow Research Center based in Grenoble, and a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere (SROCC) Chapter 2: High Mountain Areas

Morin noted that many representatives from mountain communities have publicly expressed their support, including Jean-Pierre Rougeaux, the mayor of Valloire (Savoie, Northern Alps). Rougeaux is also the president of the French Snow and Avalanche association (ANENA) and secretary general of the association of mayors of mountain municipalities. Rougeaux called for an end to “the denigration of the mountain,” saying that the 2020 winter conditions required this additional supply of snow “in order to connect a few tens of meters of tracks,” which would, in turn, support the inhabitants of the village. 

Many environmental groups reacted to the situation, arguing that adapting to the consequences of climate change by employing an energy-guzzling flying machine as a solution is certainly a step in the wrong direction. “What made a big difference is that the French Minister for the Environment, Elisabeth Borne, tweeted about it, as well as her Secretary of State, Emmanuelle Wargon,” said Morin. A few days later, a meeting was hosted in Paris in which many local authorities and representatives from the ski industry agreed to abolish the transport of snow by helicopter. Morin added, “a commitment was also made by the French government to provide support to ski resorts to adapt to climate change.” 

Translated from French by Google: “Meeting with @JBLemoyne and the professionals and elected officials of the #montagne. A constructive discussion: the players indicated that the snowmaking practices by helicopter are not intended to be renewed. The Government will support them towards sustainable tourism!”

The Luchon-Superbagnères slopes were not the only ones affected recently. Morin wrote to GlacierHub: “Note that snow was also transported by helicopter during the Christmas holidays in Montclar (Southern French Alps), and by trucks in the Vosges ski resort of Gerardmer in January. This also triggered some reactions, but not as strong as the Luchon Superbagnères case.”

According to CNN, the International Olympic Committee reported that a temperature increase of one degree Celsius would push the snow line upslope by 150 meters, and would result in ski seasons that start up to a month later and finish up to three months earlier than usual. According to NASA and NOAA, global temperatures have already risen about one degree Celsius since the late 19th century and are expected to keep rising due to increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Since modern record keeping began in 1880, the past five years have been the warmest on record, and 2019 was the second hottest year, after 2016.

“Because our society has been built around the climate Earth has had for the past approximately 10,000 years, when it changes noticeably, as it has done in recent decades, people begin to take notice,” Alan Buis wrote on NASA’s Global Climate Change website. Credit: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio/Kathryn Mersmann

The IPCC’s SROCC predicts: “In regions with mostly smaller glaciers and relatively little ice cover (e.g., European Alps, Pyrenees, Caucasus, North Asia, Scandinavia, tropical Andes, Mexico, eastern Africa and Indonesia), glaciers will lose more than 80 percent of their current mass by 2100.” It also recognizes that “variability and decline in natural snow cover have compromised the operation of low-elevation ski resorts,” such as the Luchon-Superbagnères resort in the French Pyrenees. 

View of the slopes of the Luchon-Superbagnères station (Saint-Aventin, Haute-Garonne, France), towards the Pic de Céciré. Credit: Nataloche/Wikimedia Commons

Clearly, the helicopter method is not a viable long-term solution. However, “to invest into snowmaking might not be the best option for them moving forward either,” said Robert Steiger, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Public Finance at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. “Another option would be to store the snow––that’s called snow farming–– over the summer season in a big pile.” The snow is covered with insulation material, including wood chips and plastic, so that it lasts through the summer. This allows for the preparation of slopes early in the winter season. “They say that they only lose about 20 to 30 percent of snow mass during the summer season,” said Steiger. 

“This is what Kitzbuhel [Austria] has been doing for the past five years on one slope and this has allowed them to be the first non-glacier ski area to open their ski season in mid-October.” This is about two months earlier than conventional snowmaking would allow. But then resorts are at the mercy of nature. “If the winter season is warm like this year, it could happen that it melts and you don’t have a slope anymore in January or February,” added Steiger.

This strategy has received pushback from the German-speaking media because it is especially sensitive to environmental issues. “We still had twenty degrees (Celsius) above zero, and pictures were showing a white slope in really green landscape — and that’s very provocative. Such actions actually don’t help the image of the tourism industry,” Steiger explained.

Another alternative technology to helicopter transport is the IDE All Weather Snowmaker, which Steiger mentioned has been installed at some resorts in Switzerland and Austria. It creates snow in a vacuum (so the outside temperature is no longer a limitation), but it is much less energy efficient than normal snow-making, causing the technology to be very expensive. Moreover, snow is generated in one location making distribution to the slopes a challenge––ipso facto helicopter and truck transport.

Translated from French by Google: “A helicopter to snow a runway at Luchon Superbagnères station. Against a bare mountain background. In the middle of winter. I find this video very sad.”

In the long run, Steiger believes that some locations will need to think about alternative solutions in the winter season. “This is not that easy,” he says, “because if you’re focusing on snow-based tourism at the moment, it’s hard to convince skiers to do something else. So you need to attract different kinds of people, different kinds of customers.” He added that these destinations should think about shifting to year-round tourism by introducing activities, like hiking and mountain-biking, that make the summer season more attractive. Therefore, resorts will depend less on snowfall events, which will occur less frequently in the future.

“I think snow in ski resorts is a topic which exemplifies almost perfectly all the difficulties associated with the consistency between climate change adaptation and mitigation,” expressed Morin. “Ski resorts have no choice but to act consistently, given how prominently they are exposed in the media,” he said.

Read more on GlacierHub:

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Photo Friday: Norwegian Glacial Ice Preserves Ancient Viking Artifacts

Video of the Week: Animation Shows Frequency of Antarctic Calving Events

Photo Friday: Swiss Army Airlifts Water to Cows in High-Mountain Pastures

This summer’s drought in Switzerland has been particularly harsh with the Swiss Weather Service declaring the months of July and August the driest since 1921. This severe water shortage has hit farmers hard in the heavily glacierized Alps, especially those with herds of cattle. In the highlands of the Canton of Vaud in western Switzerland, each head of cattle requires an astonishing 150 liters of water a day to subsist. To help the farmers and their cows struggling in the record dry conditions, the Swiss Army has been airlifting water by helicopter to these farms in terrain that is too difficult to reach by truck. Check out the photos below of the water airlifts in action.

Photo of a helicopter dropping water
A helicopter delivering water to a farmer in the Swiss Canton of Vaud (Source: Ryder-Walker/Twitter).

 

Close up photo of airlift water delivery
A close-up view of an airlift water delivery (Source: Global Times/Twitter).

 

Photo of a cow and a helicopter
Cow graze in a pasture in Switzerland with a Swiss Army helicopter carrying water in the background (Source: Reuters UK/Twitter).

 

Photo of a pasture in Vaud
A pasture in the Canton of Vaud (Source: Guillaume Baviere/Creative Commons).

Roundup: More Cars, Skiers but Fewer Helicopters This Summer

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.

 100 YEARS OF PARKS

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Visitors gathered at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park (Source: Montana Standard)

From MONTANA STANDARD:

“After Yellowstone National Park welcomed a record 4 million visitors in 2015, what will America’s first national park do for an encore in 2016?Probably more of the same. Tourism experts are predicting that 2016 should be another banner year for Montana’s tourism industry. Montana hosted 11.7 million nonresident travelers in 2015, an 8 percent increase from 2014. However, the $3.6 billion, in spending represented a decrease of 8 percent from the previous year.

UM’s research shows that Yellowstone and Glacier National Park represent the biggest draw to out-of-state travelers. A number of events that will coincide with the centennial of the National Park Service could also boost visitation this year.”

Read more here.

 

Group wants Glacier Park helicopter tours permanently grounded

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Glacier Hotel had its share of colorful characters and events. (Source: Missoulian)

From Missoulian:

“Click on a website Mary T. McClelland created a few days ago, and you’ll see waves lapping at the shore of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

McClelland this week released an open letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell on behalf of Friends for a Quiet! Glacier Coalition, which calls for an end to scenic helicopter tours over the park by 2017.

Glacier’s solitude has been shattered by hundreds of helicopter overflights,” McClelland’s letter says, “and the incessant noise pollution endured by wildlife and visitors is destroying what Glacier stands for – the pinnacle of natural beauty and tranquility.”

 Read more here.

Top 5 Glaciers to Ski This Summer

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Before dropping the Middle Teton, Griffin Post and his crew had the opportunity to contemplate their sanity. (Source: OnTheSnow)

From OnTheSnow:

“If hiking for your turns during the spring means you’re committed, what does hiking for you turns during the peak of summer make you? Aside from chemically unbalanced, it makes you lucky. A number of glaciers still exist in North America (believe it or not), from the Sierras to the Tetons, offering skiers and riders not only an endless winter, but endless views as well. Here are our top-five spots to scratch (or should we say shred) that summer itch.

1. Grand Teton National Park: Glacier Route, Middle Teton

2. Glacier National Park: Salamander Glacier

3. Mount Shasta: Hotlum-Wintun Glacier

4. Sierra Nevada: Palisade Glacier

5. Mount Rainier: Paradise Glacier”

Read more here.

Helicopters: The Eye-in-the-Sky for Glacier Research

Helicopter carrying ground-penetrating radar (RST system) (source: RST Group)
Helicopter carrying ground-penetrating radar (RST system) (source: RST Group)

With global warming, glaciers are melting, and mountain ranges in the mid-latitudes such as the Swiss Alps are showing significant glacier retreat. For decades researchers have measured the length and area of glaciers to see if they are shrinking or not— a key symptom of disequilibrium— which can be done using photographs and satellites.

But a key indicator of a glacier’s health is the volume of the ice, and that’s impossible to calculate without knowing its thickness. To measure this, scientists can take advantage of advanced tools involving helicopters and radar, according to a recent study conducted in the Swiss Alps by Anja Rutishauser, Hansruedi Maurer, and Andreas Bauder and published in the journal Geophysics.

Overview of the study sites located in the (a) Bernese and (b) Valais Alps (Switzerland). Source: Geophysics)
Overview of the study sites located in the (a) Bernese and (b) Valais Alps (Switzerland). (Source: Geophysics)

To map the ice-bedrock interface, researchers use ground-penetrating radar to go through the air and ice and then down to the rock so they can determine how far down the rock is. While it’s easy to measure the where the top of the glacial ice is, figuring out where it meets the rock below, and thus calculating its thickness, requires instrumentation. However, this is tricky because glaciers are in narrow valleys. So how do you get the equipment above the glacier? It’s possible to place radar directly on the glacier surface; this system produces high-quality images, but there are many places where it is difficult or impossible to gain access to the surface. And it’s cumbersome and expensive to move the equipment from one spot to another on the surface. As the paper states,

A major challenge in conducting ground-based surveys arises from the logistical and accessibility problems posed by rough and potentially dangerous terrain (e.g., crevasses). In contrast, airborne GPR systems are less affected by terrain challenges and have a high potential for rapidly investigating large areas. Most such systems used to investigate valley glaciers have been mounted beneath helicopters.

BGR
The BGR system in operation (Source: Geophysics)

Because they can fly, helicopters can soar over tough terrain and cover a lot of ground, and offer a solution to the limits of surveys with radar equipment placed directly on the glacier surface. The authors discuss three different helicopter-borne ground-penetrating radar (GPR) systems. The first system, developed at the University of Münster in Germany, is a low-frequency pulsed system (BGR), the second system is a stepped frequency system, produced by a commercial firm (RST), and the third, with a frequency profile closer to the second, is also a commercial system (GSSI).

RST antennae mounted on a construction (Source: Study article)

The BGR system uses two shielded broadband antennae mounted on a frame structure. This structure is attached to a rope, and when in operation hangs 20 meters below the helicopter in flight. The RST system is similar to the BGR system, and differs only in the frequency of the radar pulses that it emits. The GSSI system uses a distinct technique, in which the antennae are mounted directly on the helicopter skids. This GSSI system seemed attractive, since the first two systems, in which the helicopter carried a weight suspended below it, could interfere with the stability and efficiency of the helicopter. Moreover, the GSSI system might allow the helicopter to fly more steadily, producing a smoother image that required less processing to compensate for fluctuations in velocity.

GSSI source:Study article
GSSI antennae mounted directly on the helicopter skids (Source:Study article)

The researchers conducted a number of repeat flights to assess the three systems. They used different systems on individual sections of the glacier, and compared the images for two features: the clarity of the images which they produced and the depth of ice that they could penetrate. The RST system proved to be the most effective on both features. Though the GSSI system was more favorable in terms of its effects on the flight performance of the helicopter, the images it produced were inferior, perhaps because of interference between the radar and the body of the helicopter itself. The authors note that these results reflect specific characteristics of the glaciers: the ice is relatively warm, in comparison to glaciers at higher elevations and latitudes, and it includes some sections of liquid water. So they suggest that the relative performance of the systems might differ under other conditions, and propose that other frequencies might perform better in these circumstances as well.

New helicopter ground penetrating radar system Source: ETH Zurich
New helicopter ground penetrating radar system
(Source: ETH Zurich)

Helicopter-borne ground-penetrating radar systems are a good approach to mapping bedrock on temperate alpine glaciers. It’s a technical challenge to figure out whether the glaciers are growing or shrinking and by how much, but scientists have to do it by improving analytical methods and measurement tools because tracking what is going on with glaciers is an important tool in climate science. These comparisons of techniques in the Swiss Alps point to similar experiments that could be conducted in other mountain regions of the world.