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Ski Resort Life

The Heat's On


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You don’t have to convince people in Andermatt, Switzerland, that global warming is real. A glacier at the resort’s Gemsstock area has been melting for 15 years, retreating about 65 feet so far. A massive snow ramp to one of its key lifts now thaws every summer and must be repaired before each ski season.

Gemsstock’s shrinking glacier is hardly unique, as rising temperatures threaten to gradually evaporate large chunks of the worldwide ski industry. The heat is on, especially in Europe, due to the low elevation of many ski resorts there. (Kitzbühel, Austria, for instance, home to the world’s most famous downhill, sits at only 2,624 feet.) A 2003 United Nations study examining the future of skiing forecasts trouble for the sport in Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Italy, among others. It predicts that the snow line in the Austrian Alps will probably rise between 650 and 1,000 feet in as few as 30 years.

The impact of decreasing snow levels could extend well beyond frustrated skiers and struggling shops. Austria could lose 5 percent of its gross national product. The U.N. report cautions that Switzerland’s losses could hit $1.6 billion.

Some of the report’s predictions are already being felt. Along with glacier meltdowns in Austria, Switzerland and elsewhere, year-round glacier skiing at Italy’s Val Senales was shut down this past summer for the first time in 30 years because of low snowpack. Summer glacier ski areas in the French Alps have closed as well.

Many ski resorts have already begun planning for an uncertain future, experimenting with a range of attempted remedies. The European ski industry, in fact, may be working as aggressively as any single industrial group to address the effects of global warming. Low-lying European ski resorts have been hit hardest by recent warming trends so, not surprisingly, these same resorts have worked hardest at finding solutions.

At Gemsstock, for instance, scientists have come up with a temporary fix that looks like a Christo art installation: They’ve wrapped a portion of their retreating glacier with a 3,000-square-foot fleece-like blanket to slow the melting. So far, the specially designed, $83,000 white covering has succeeded in slowing the thaw, if not eliminating it. Across the Alps—even in Austria’s Tyrol region, the birthplace of skiing—other sick glaciers are being swaddled in blankets to ward off the sun. “We think it will become common practice, Urs Elmiger of the Gemsstock cable-car company told Reuters news last spring.

A more obvious—and controversial—response to shrinking snow has been to expand resorts into the Alps’ higher reaches, or to build whole new resorts at higher elevations. In fact, most developers are now unwilling to build major projects at Alps resorts unless they can site them on high ground. In Davos, Switzerland, developers are planning a 26-story hotel complex several hundred feet higher than the main village. To stave off potential economic loss, the Tyrol region last year revoked a longstanding ban on building ski lifts at high elevations and on glaciers. Two new high-altitude resorts are planned in the area—one at Kaunertal, above 11,500 feet on the Gepatsch glacier. France is among other Alpine countries planning to develop new high-elevation ski resorts.

Environmentalists aren’t pleased with high-elevation development or the further commercialization of glacial areas. Michel Revaz of the Commission for the Protection of the Alps told a reporter last year, “These glaciers are the last pure places in the Alps. They are bodies of pristine solid water and should not be polluted with fuel, oil and debris.

The North American ski industry has, so far, been spared. Ski villages here—at least out West—tend to be higher (downtown Aspen’s elevation is 7,908 feet, for instance). Michael Berry, President of the National Ski Areas Association, says his organization is keeping an eye on Europe’s problems. “We’re aware of evidence in Europe that the lower elevation resorts are feeling the impacts in a very specific way.

One American resort operator in particular is taking the lead on confronting the issue. The Aspen Skiing Company is moving toward evaluating all of its operations through the prism of global warming. Auden Schendler, Aspen’s Director of Environmental Affairs, has led efforts to educate people, and has also lobbied Congress and Colorado’s legislature to pass renewable energy laws and other related legislation. “All our programs are organized under the umbrella of climate change, Schendler says, adding that the rest of the industry should be doing more. “We need a greater sense of urgency on it. Once it’s here, he says, “it’s too late.