With ski season becoming shorter and less predictable and glaciers in retreat, it seems that global warming has already begun to affect winter tourism. Mark Lynas reports on a shrinking industry.
"That's it, the season's over." The two ski attendants from the Glencoe Ski Centre were sitting in front of a computer in a nearby village, watching a five-day forecast download from the internet. One of them shook his head glumly as the heavy rain-bearing depressions marched across the screen. "It's only March – we should have a month at least of winter to go yet."
Scotland's snow is in retreat. According to a recent Scottish Executive report, there have been twelve days less snow cover per decade throughout the country since the late 1970s. And following the winter of 1987/88 there have been only three out of thirteen winters with an above-average snow cover duration. Those who venture into the mountains today are more likely to encounter mud and rain than frost and snow.
The impact on the Scottish snowsports industry has been dramatic. Ski centres report fewer operational days for ski lifts and a general shortening of the season. Rather than accumulating over the course of the winter, large dumps of snowfall tend to melt straight away everywhere but at the highest altitudes. All the lower ski tows on the Cairngorms, for example, show long-term declines over the last twenty years. Respondents to a questionnaire on which the report was based indicated that reductions in revenue were directly hitting the industry's future, that staff had frequently had to be paid off early, and that ski club memberships were in decline. In fact, Scottish skiing has now become so unreliable that some cancelled events have been moved to the European Alps.
"You're seeing quite massive changes," Dr John Harrison, lead author of the Scottish Executive report, told Geographical. "Skiing activity has been severely curtailed. In Scotland the long cold winters where you could ski for weeks on end have gone, and they show no sign of coming back."
Last season was the worst in a decade for Scotland's ski centres. "It's been an absolute disaster," complained Bob Kinnaird, Cairngorm Mountain's chief executive, as temperatures soared above 20°C in April. "I'm beginning to believe there really is something in global warming." All four other ski areas, including Glencoe, had stopped operating by the end of March.
And the future looks even grimmer: snowcover is predicted to disappear altogether from low ground in the south-west of Scotland, whilst by the 2020s the Highland region will have suffered a 20-40% reduction. As the report outlines, this represents "a considerable threat to the industry, resulting in the closure of some ski centres, with further impact on retailing and accommodation sectors, and employment opportunities".
But that doesn't mean the end of Scottish highland tourism altogether – far from it. Ski centres have already begun to diversify, out of snowsports into mountain biking, go-karting, walking and – in the case of the Glenshee Ski Centre – golf. "If you take the snow off the hills," says Dr Harrison, "more people are inclined to walk." This has impacts on the flora and fauna – especially fragile alpine plants that would normally be protected from trampling by a cover of snow. But it also has safety implications: "People see the hills are green so they go walking, but the temperature on the highest ground is still low enough for sudden snow flurries, and people easily become trapped or disorientated."
In fact at elevations above 1000 metres the decline in snowfall rates is expected to be much slower, because the general warming is being accompanied by an increase in precipitation, which could lead to more prolonged snow on the highest ground. "That could be some compensation," admits Dr Harrison. "If you want to find snow, go higher." But 'going higher' means building more intrusive infrastructure, like ski tows, roads and furnicular railways in places which are still wilderness, and higher ground is also steeper and less safe. Geographical constraints are the biggest limitation: there simply isn't a lot of ground above 1000 metres to go round. "You've got the Cairngorm plateau and the Nevis range, and some parts of Glencoe, but the areas are very limited," Dr Harrison concludes.
But Scotland's problems are minor compared to those in Australia, where the whole New South Wales ski industry is expected to be wiped out in as little as two decades. According to computer modelling experiments of future climate change conducted by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, projections of 30-day snowcover area in the highest regions drop by up to 66% by 2030 and 97% by 2070. The Snowy Mountains may have to be renamed, and its skiers and snowboarders go to join their cousins on the beaches instead.
Scotland and Australia are hardest hit because of their relatively low elevations. Visitors to the European Alps, on the other hand, enjoy skiing and snowboarding up to as high as 4,000 metres. And despite a rash of stories predicting the imminent death of the Alpine skiing industry, experts point out that the real situation is actually far more complex. As Professor Martin Beniston, director of the Geography Unit in the Swiss University of Fribourg's Department of Geosciences, explains: "Climatic variability is very high, and there's no direct link between average warming and snowfall in a particular winter. The Alps had quite a good season this year, though last season was dismal."
No-one doubts that the climate is changing. Winter temperatures in the Alpine region are now 2°C higher than at the beginning of the century – a rate of warming about three times faster than the global average. And whereas the Alpine ski industry used to rely on a good early-season snowfall followed by stable cold temperatures brought on by continental high pressure, this has now changed. Stronger westerly conditions now feed intense winter depressions over the mountains, dumping stupendous amounts of snow at the higher levels – but rain down below.
As Professor Beniston points out, ski stations above 2,500 metres sometimes now find themselves under metres of new snow at the same time as those below 1,500 metres battle drenching rain and mud. But the good times – at higher altitudes anyway – may not last. Future projections envisage an average warming of 4°C by 2070, which would cut snowfall totals by half. "For every degree celsius in warming the skiing season is about three weeks less," Professor Beniston told Geographical. "So with four degrees that's about three months less in total." Taking three months out of what is currently a four-month season, he admits, won't leave much time for the Alpine skiers and boarders of the future. "Winters will be random. At lower elevations there will be practically no snow at all."
The heavier snow of today's warmer climate is already bringing dangers. Avalanches seem to be becoming more frequent – not just up on the pistes where they are a recognised hazard for skiers, but even down at villages which were previously considered safe. In February 1999 record snowfalls triggered an avalanche which killed more than 30 people in the Austrian resort of Galtur. Just two weeks previously 12 people – including four children – were killed near Chamonix when avalanches crashed into 17 chalets. The disaster was the worst in the Chamonix area since 1908, and was also triggered by three days of exceptionally heavy snowfall.
Another major concern comes not from snowfall but from the melting of the very mountains themselves. Much of the highest ground in the Alps is permanently frozen – known as permafrost – with sediment, earth and rock held together by a glue-like layer of ice. For as long as it stays frozen, permafrost can be as hard as concrete. But once it begins to thaw, the whole mass can begin to slide downhill under its own weight. It's a danger that is taken seriously in Switzerland: the small town of Pontresina is currently spending large sums building a giant wall to catch any landslide triggered by permafrost degradation on the slopes above.
Although permafrost occurs all over Europe, with patches even as far south as the Spanish Sierra Nevada, it is the Alps which are most at risk. As Dr Charles Harris, co-ordinator of the EU-funded Permafrost and Climate in Europe project explains: "The slopes are very steep there, with villages, railways and roads located at high altitude. If the permafrost beneath these constructions were to deteriorate, the damage would be considerable." Rising temperatures have a dual effect on permafrost, acting directly to warm the ground in summer, and bringing heavier snow in winter which insulates the ground from the coldest nights and retains warmth. A gigantic rockfall on the eastern face of the Matterhorn in July 2003 – after which 70 climbers had to be rescued – could show the shape of things to come, arriving as it did during record-breaking summer temperatures.
For his part, Professor Beniston is convinced of the potential danger, but still unsure that blame for a specific event like the Matterhorn landslide can be pinned on climate change. "It has been a very warm summer," he admits, "but the rockfall on the Matterhorn could be due to the effects of the freeze-thaw cycle." He feels that a much greater issue is the headlong retreat of the Alpine glaciers – a process that has been continuing almost uninterrupted since the end of the Little Ice Age in 1850. About half the glacier mass has disappeared in the last 150 years, and the rate of retreat has accelerated dramatically since the mid-1980s. "People do come to see the Alpine glaciers – they're a big attraction for hikers," says Beniston. "But the greatest implication of the melting is for hydrology, because the glaciers feed the rivers flowing off the Alps during the driest part of the summer." It's a familiar problem, and one which isn't unique to Europe: major cities in both South America and the Indian subcontinent depend largely on mountain-generated water, which will become a diminishing resource as global warming accelerates glacial wastage during the century ahead.
The process is already well underway in the Peruvian Andes, where several glaciated mountain ranges have lost up to a half their snow and ice in the last thirty years alone. Peru's Cordillera Blanca ('White Range'), a climber's Mecca which boasts some of the best ice mountaineering opportunities in the world, has lost 111 square kilometres of glacier area since 1970 – an area about a third the size of the Isle of Wight. The tallest peaks (and the area includes the 6,768-metre Nevado Huascaran, Peru's highest as well as the highest mountain anywhere in the world within the tropics) are proportionately less affected, but some of the lower-elevation glaciers have already disappeared completely.
Alcides Ames, a pioneer of Peruvian glaciology and now owner of a hostel in the climbing town of Huaraz, recalls some fieldwork he did as a young graduate student on Glacier Broggi, at the south end of the Cordillera, in 1968. Returning in 1995, he was shocked to discover that the glacier was "dying". It had retreated over a kilometre since the 1930s, and was losing 17 metres a year by the mid-1990s. "There was hardly anything left," he says. "It's now probably disappeared completely."The peaks of the Cordillera Blanca are incredibly precipitous, and its steep glaciers are split apart with dangerous crevasses. A few brave souls do manage to ski down Nevado Huascaran – though four young Austrian climbers were killed there two years ago in a crevasse fall – but most snowsports enthusiasts restrict themselves to the flatter ice plateau of Glacier Pastoruri, a must-see on many tourist agendas because of its beautiful ice caves. Several skiing championships have been held there in recent years – but Pastoruri too is dying. With its summit at a relatively low height of 5,240 metres, this glacier is retreating at about 16 metres a year, and will be gone completely in as little as two decades.
These changes are replicated in every glaciated mountain range in the world – with the single exception of some of the maritime glaciers in Norway where melting caused by rising temperatures has been offset by heavier snowfall. In total mountain glaciers are now losing a hundred cubic kilometres of water every single year, more than the entire volume of Switzerland's Lake Geneva. This includes glaciers in the highest latitudes like Alaska and Canada, which contain some of the largest ice masses outside the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps. Recent studies using airborne laser altimetry found 95% of these glaciers to be thinning, adding water to the oceans at a rate equivalent to an annual sea level rise of 0.2mm per year. Tourist cruise ships now visiting Alaska's Glacier Bay are able to travel tens of miles into a previously ice-bound fjord.
Global warming is amplified at polar latitudes because of a strong positive feedback mechanism. Once snow and ice begin to melt, the reflectivity of the Earth's surface – whether dark ground or dark seawater – decreases drastically, absorbing still more heat, which then melts more snow in an accelerating cycle. The result has been a dramatic warming in places like Alaska, which has seen average winter temperatures shoot up by 6°C in the last thirty years. The change has played havoc with Alaskan ecosystems: 2.3 million acres of trees have been killed by spruce beetle attacks since 1992, and much of the worst damage has been in the formerly-pristine Kenai Peninsula. Melting permafrost has damaged houses, airstrips and roads, and turned large areas of boreal forest into swampy bog. During the 2002-3 season there was so little snow around Anchorage that the famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race, which attracts competitors from around the world, had to be moved 200 miles north to Fairbanks.
Other polar areas are affected too: over the last four years there has been no sea ice along either the east or west Greenland coasts, a highly unusual event which led to complaints from some cruise tour companies, whose disappointed customers had spent large sums on the expectation of the true 'Arctic experience'. But Greenland is still marginal: with 1.5 million visitors a year, accounting for $1.2 billion of spending and 20,000 jobs, Alaska currently receives the lion's share of polar tourism. Here too one of the biggest draws of all is the wildlife, especially marine mammals like whales, walruses, seals and polar bears, all of which are highly dependent on sea ice for their survival.
With Arctic Ocean ice already 40% thinner than thirty years ago, and predicted to decline still further in the future, the future is bleak for all these animals. Over future decades they will be herded together into a steadily shrinking area of remnant sea ice, before being driven to extinction once the ice disappears completely, around the end of the century. Then the world will have lost not just some of its most precious biodiversity, but one of the most profound tourist experiences of all.
Mark Lynas is a climate change specialist writer based in Oxford. His book 'High Tide: News from a Warming World' will be published by Flamingo in March 2004. marklynas.org
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First published in Geographical Magazine - the magazine of The Royal Geographical Society.