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Winter sports have no future at low altitudes

The recently published Alpine climate report written by German, Austrian and Swiss meteorologists leaves nothing to be desired in terms of clarity: “The Alpine region is more severely affected by the consequences of human greenhouse gas emissions than other regions or natural areas.

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Winter sports have no future at low altitudes

The recently published Alpine climate report written by German, Austrian and Swiss meteorologists leaves nothing to be desired in terms of clarity: “The Alpine region is more severely affected by the consequences of human greenhouse gas emissions than other regions or natural areas. There is less and less snow. The glaciers are clearly losing mass.” What does that mean for winter sports? We talked about it with Maximilian Witting from Munich University. The research focus of the scientist is the effects of climate change on winter sports.

WORLD: Will Germany remain a skiing nation?

Maximilian Witting: That's difficult to say. It is clear that the conditions for this will change. The results of various scientific studies show that the increase in temperature in the Alpine region caused by climate change is causing the snow line to rise. As a result, lower-lying ski areas have to increasingly rely on the production of technical snow in order to be able to offer winter sports at all. Unfortunately, the snowmaking conditions are also deteriorating.

WORLD: And that means specifically?

Witting: This means that in the future it will be increasingly difficult for ski areas at low altitudes in the German low mountain ranges and in the foothills of the Alps to offer winter sports in an economically viable way. The number of these areas will therefore decrease significantly by the middle of the century.

But that doesn't mean that there won't be any more ski areas in Germany in the future. Because other factors also play a role. For example, the location on the mountain - north side or south side. Or the microclimate. For example, Balderschwang in the Allgäu is considered a snow hole, although it is comparatively low. Nevertheless, the general trend can already be observed.

WORLD: To what extent?

Witting: Insofar as the number of ski areas in the Bavarian Alps has slowly but steadily decreased since the 1990s - precisely because of a lack of snow reliability.

WORLD: Well, you can compensate for the lack of snow with snow cannons better today than in the 90s.

Witting: Right. Snow cannons have long been considered the adaptation strategy for ski resorts. Massive investments have been made here, which today enables many ski areas to have a stable winter sports season. But the changes I have described make it clear that snowmaking is not a long-term solution, especially at lower altitudes, but rather delays the necessary change process.

Winter is approaching and in some places the ski areas have already opened. Snow cannons are used to provide enough snow. But they are real power guzzlers. The result is higher prices.

WORLD: What could such a change process look like?

Witting: There is no panacea here. Rather, each location must develop an individual concept that is adapted to the changes described. This means that such places no longer invest in new snow-making technology, but instead, for example, in the diversification of the offer in order to be able to offer guests something in the future even without snow.

WORLD: So German ski areas should get out of artificial snow?

Witting: I didn't say that, I just said that snowmaking conditions are changing and snowmaking at lower altitudes will become less and less economical in the future. For some lift operators, this can mean that they reduce their economic dependence on winter offers and try to compensate for this with more offers in the other seasons.

WORLD: Can the lost income from winter sports be easily compensated for?

Witting: No, it's not that easy. If you look at the per capita spending behavior of a pair of skiers, it takes about five hikers or one wellness tourist to generate the same turnover. That's why ski resorts have to think very carefully about which branches of tourism they want to invest in and what impact this will have on their future guest structure.

WORLD: Isn't sticking to snow making the better solution? According to the German cable car operators, a winter sports enthusiast uses an average of 16 kilowatt hours of energy for the cable car and slope preparation, as much as a mid-range car travels 22 kilometers. What the association wants to say is clear: snow cannons are not power guzzlers.

Witting: With this calculation, one mustn't forget that snow-making conditions will deteriorate in the future. That doesn't mean that snow can no longer be produced. From a technical point of view, snow cannons can also produce snow at higher temperatures. But under unfavorable conditions, they require significantly more water and electricity, and at some point that becomes economically unviable. In addition, the costs are added to the ticket prices.

WORLD: And you think at some point the point will be reached where winter sports enthusiasts are no longer willing to pay more for the ski pass?

Witting: There will always be guests who are willing and/or able to pay. But whether their number is sufficient to offer winter sports in an economically viable way depends on how well the ski areas are able to compensate for losses.

WORLD: Apart from the economic consequences - don't we also lose cultural heritage by giving up winter sports?

Witting: As I said, it's not about making sacrifices, it's about changing the winter sports market. We have to be prepared to experience a concentration of winter sports at higher altitudes in the Alps. This has to do with climate change, but demographic change also plays a role here.

WORLD: What do you mean?

Witting: Quite simply, the proportion of older guests is increasing. These guests are often not quite as fixated on skiing as younger guests. So a certain proportion of future skiers are missing here. In addition, there is simply a lack of young people in skiing who could close this gap. Firstly, for insurance reasons, fewer and fewer ski camps are being offered in schools. Second: Children with a migration background often have less connection to winter sports.

And for families, a winter holiday is even more difficult to finance in times of inflation. The lack of small and low-lying ski areas, where people often learn to ski, as they are easily accessible and inexpensive alternatives to high-lying ski areas, is likely to exacerbate the problem of young people.

WORLD: Laax in the Swiss canton of Graubünden has set itself the goal of becoming the first CO₂-neutral Alpine destination by 2030. Energy is being generated there more and more from renewable energies such as hydroelectric power, wind power, solar power and biomass. Snow groomers are powered by hybrid drives, and the municipality is planting new trees. Is winter sports possible without a guilty conscience?

Witting: Phew, difficult question. From my point of view, it is not about people's conscience, but about the question of how we can achieve the 1.5-degree target in climate protection, which the international community has been working towards since the Paris climate conference in 2015. And for this, such climate protection goals are necessary in all areas of tourism, not just in winter sports. In addition, each individual can make a contribution through their behavior.

WORLD: And how exactly?

Witting: Getting there and back is a key factor. It accounts for around 70 percent of the CO₂ footprint of a winter trip. Fewer day trips, longer stays or traveling by train are therefore possible approaches.

dr Maximilian Witting works at the LMU Munich at the Chair of Human-Environment Relationships. From 2014 to 2017, the graduate geographer was project manager for “climate-friendly mountain sports” at the German Alpine Club in Munich.

A third of all glaciers are in danger of disappearing. "It also affects the Aletsch Glacier in the Swiss Alps," says Dr. Alexander Hildebrand. The meteorologist uses photo comparisons to show how the glacier melt is progressing - and what effects this is having on the Rhine.

Source: WORLD / Alexander Hildebrand

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