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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Ski Resorts Seek Alternatives

Artificial Lake at roughly 2500m, Alps, France. Photo by: will_cyclist/Flickr
Artificial Lake at roughly 2500m, Alps, France. Photo by: will_cyclist/Flickr

As snow rapidly disappears from high mountains, ski and winter sport resorts are looking for alternatives to keep their struggling businesses alive.

The world’s skiing industry is worth $60 to $70 billion, some estimates say. About 44 percent of ski-related travel is in the alps, while 21 percent is in the United States.

In just 30 years, ski resorts in the Alps have seen 30 percent less snow, according to regional authorities. At the same time, temperatures have risen by 1.6 degrees Celsius since the 1960’s and glaciers in the region have lost 26 percent of their surface.

For professional skiers, who train on glaciers, this could be bad news. If temperatures rise to 2 or 3 degrees higher, glaciers below 3,000 mertres will melt away, experts from the Hydrology Transfer and Environment Research Laboratory in Grenoble say.

 

Already, Val Thorens, the highest ski resort in Europe in Savoie, France, has closed off its glacier to skiers. But the resort continues to trigger avalanches on the glacier to replenish its slopes below, depleting its glacier. “Before we trained at a very low elevation, around 2,400 meters, even in July,” French Ski champion Fabienne Serrat, who won two golds medals at the World Championships in 1974, told AFP. “Today many youths who compete go to South America [to train].”

Val Thorens, France Photo by: Leo-seta/Flickr.
Val Thorens, France Photo by: Leo-seta/Flickr.

Instead, resorts are investing in dog sledding, snowshoeing and sledding to keep tourists coming. Franck Vernay, first deputy mayor of Biot, a small village in Haute-Savoie, in the Rhône-Alpes region, said the ski season in his commune has been closed for three seasons because no profits were being made. “We haven’t given up on skiing but we’ve got to try to lure people in other ways. Otherwise its certain death,” he added.  

In other parts of the world, like California, ski resorts are looking into other high mountain sports, like biking and rafting. Ski seasons have been shortened, so many resorts are now open year-round so they can stay afloat. They are also developing ropes courses, zip lines and disk golf.

“It’s not just the tourists going to ski or mountain-bike in these elite destinations, but there are also entire communities relying on hotel jobs, rafting jobs, working at a ski lift,” Diana Madson, executive director of Mountain Pact, an organisation that empowers mountain communities, told the Los Angeles Times. “There are a lot of people who are vulnerable to these impacts.”

Roundup: Snowmaking Guns, Antarctic Ice, and Black Carbon

Ski Resort’s New Snowmaking Guns 

Describing a major ski resort in British Columbia, Canada: “De Jong says that after commercial operations end in July, four snowmaking guns and other infrastructure will be installed. It is expected to be used beginning in October. ‘If the pilot project is conclusive, this unique project will become a significant addition to Whistler Blackcomb’s list of adaptations to ensure long-term resilience against climate change,’ he said.”

Read here for more info.

Horstman Glacier
Horstman Glacier at Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort (Courtesy of Flickr user tyleringram)

Sudden and Rapid Ice Loss Discovered in Antarctica

“Several massive glaciers in the southern Antarctic Peninsula suddenly started to crumble in 2009, a new study reports today (May 21) in the journal Science. ‘Out of the blue, it’s become the second most important contributor to sea level rise in Antarctica,’ said lead study author Bert Wouters, a remote sensing expert and Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.”

Read here for more info.

Calving Antarctic Glacier

Study uses ice cores to estimate biomass burnings’ contributions to black carbon

Muztagh Ata
Muztagh Ata (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

“We analyzed refractory black carbon (rBC) in an ice core spanning 1875–2000 AD from Mt. Muztagh Ata, the Eastern Pamirs [of western China], using a Single Particle Soot Photometer (SP2)…. Mean rBC concentrations increased four-fold since the mid-1970s and reached maximum values at end of the 1980s. The observed decrease of the rBC concentrations during the 1990s was likely driven by the economic recession of former USSR countries in Central Asia. Levoglucosan concentrations showed a similar temporal trend to rBC concentrations, exhibiting a large increase around 1980 AD followed by a decrease in the 1990s that was likely due to a decrease in energy-related biomass combustion. The time evolution of levoglucosan/rBC ratios indicated stronger emissions from open fires during the 1940s–1950s, while the increase in rBC during the 1980s–1990s was caused from an increase in energy-related combustion of biomass and fossil fuels.”

Read here for more info.

SkiFree, a game from the past, has a message for the future

The 1990s game SkiFree was simple, until the yeti started chasing you.
The 1990s game SkiFree was simple, until the yeti started chasing you.

If you used a PC at any point in the ‘90s, you probably encountered the game SkiFree. To jog your memory, the 16-bit windows game featured a lone skier tirelessly trying to gain “style points” and avoid obstacles such as rocks, trees, snow bunnies and a man-eating yeti.

SkiFree, created by Microsoft programmer Chris Pirih in his free time, was recently revamped to reflect present-day concerns. Instead of a snow monster chasing you down the alpine slopes, you and the monster end up at the bottom of the mountain, submerged in water below the bottom of a melting glacier.

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Countless hours could be spent in any of the original game’s three modes of play: slalom, tree slalom, and free-style. Skiing down the mountain you would lose points by running into trees, rock or yellow snow (yes, the crude humor reflects correctly on the overall tone of the game). Points could be gained by jumping over trees and rock, knocking over snow bunnies, and running over snowboarders. There were also moguls and snow banks for the very skilled virtual skier to catch some air on–all of this controlled from your keyboard number pad. The goal was to accumulate as many style points as possible before the abominable snow monster (or monsters if you were very good) caught up and gobbled you up!

Skifreeonline.com hosts a version of the game that you don’t have to download. This retro favorite was released in March of earlier this year. After clicking the link, you are immediately taken to a familiar screen in your browser window. Just after you have remembered how to maneuver and begin to pick up momentum the white slopes are interrupted with a gray cliff and then blue water. Next thing you know, you have joined the yeti bobbing up and down in the ocean.

Unlike the original, the version on SkiFreeOnline.com features a more sobering ending than being eaten by a yeti.
Unlike the original, the version on SkiFreeOnline.com features a more sobering ending than being eaten by a yeti.

The presence of glaciers has been seen in the virtual sphere before. The online world Second Life has an island with calving glaciers, and we previously mentioned the addictive phone app Glacier Rush [link here when published]. The new version of SkiFree blatantly offers a bit of a reality check to the nostalgic 20 to 50 year olds who popularized the game in the 1990s: “The snow monster is not a real thing. Climate change is.” The abrupt end of play and demonstration of how familiar landscapes we take for granted are changing was effective and direct.

Play the original here or check out the revised version reflecting our changing climate here. There is also a free version for the iPhone and iPad on Apple’s App Store.