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.

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