Winter meltdown

Britain’s top female biathlete, Emma Fowler, is in Hochfilzen, Austria, for the second biathlon World Cup event of the year. But outside her hotel, the sun is beating down and her competitors are wandering around in T-shirts.

“It’s a bit weird,” she says. “We’re used to wearing thermals and Lycra, but when the temperature hits 10°C, you just want to strip off.”

At least the circuit at Hochfilzen is open. Across Europe this season, skiing events have more often been cancelled than not, as organisers contemplate conditions more usually seen in October than December.

At an altitude of just 1 000m, the village of Hochfilzen has always found snow a fickle friend at this time of year, according to tourist officer Martina Trixl.

“It’s not uncommon that we don’t have snow at this time of year, but before we didn’t need it before Christmas so nobody cared much. Now we have these championships, everyone is expecting it. The last two winters were colder than usual. We had 8,7m of snow here at Hochfilzen and the snow came early. This season though, it’s really different. We’re not used to wearing T-shirts in December. “

Skiers often dismiss reports of bare mountainsides and diminishing ski trails as a harbinger of global warming, especially early in the season.

But Trixl is quick to observe that while snowfall can be difficult to predict, what is happening in Austria and across the Alps is evidence of climate change. “If you go up to the Grossglockner and see the glaciers, you have to believe it. They’re disappearing. We expect the skiing season will be shorter in the future, perhaps only January and February.”

Climatologists lined up this week with imposing statistics on just how warm it’s getting up there. Reinhard Bohm at Austria’s Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics warned that the Alps are experiencing their warmest period for 1 300 years. The Italian Meteorological Association said that so far this has been the warmest winter since records began 200 years ago. All of this spells disaster for Europe’s glaciers.

Between 1985 and 2000, the Alps lost 22% of their glacial surface area, with those in relatively lower-lying Austria most vulnerable of all. In the ferociously hot summer of 2003, between 5% and 10% of the remaining ice melted. Leading glaciologist Michael Kemp has warned that with a 3°C rise in summer air temperatures the Alps could lose 80% of the remaining glaciers.

Rising temperatures and the loss of ice have sinister consequences, especially if you’re a hiker or mountaineer. In recent years, locals living below the Eiger in Switzerland have watched the Lower Grindelwald Glacier retreating up the mountain month by month. The presence of ice had locked huge areas of unstable rock on to the lower slopes of the Eiger, but with its disappearance whole cliff faces have started collapsing.

“Mountains are always changing,” says mountain guide Victor Saunders, “entropy is in their nature. They want to be horizontal. You have to allow for that in judging what’s happening in the mountains with regard to global warming. But there’s no doubt that climate change is making it worse.”

Saunders says as the permafrost level that locks mountains solid rises, previously frozen rock faces start shedding loose rock. The changing permafrost level, what Saunders calls a “zone of instability”, means rocks fall in places that were once safe, sometimes with fatal consequences.

How the melting of the Alps affects tourism has politicians and businessmen riveted. Professor Hans Elsasser, an economic geographer at Zurich University, has made a study of how winter sports could be affected if the climatologists have got it right. “So far we haven’t yet seen a big change in the tourism industry, but there has been a clear impact on natural snow cover in winter. Generally speaking, in lower regions in recent years, the early season has not had snow. In the future, destinations at higher altitudes will become more popular and more expensive.”

Elsasser says that in the past 15 years, the skiing industry has become more capital intensive. Poor snowfall in the late 1980s prompted investment in artificial snow-making. But the combination of high costs and rising temperatures makes that less attractive now. For 1km of piste, he says, it costs â,¬600 000 of investment in machinery, and a further â,¬R25 000 each year in energy and water costs. That means higher lift-pass costs.

“Artificial snow is a solution for the next five or perhaps 10 years,” he says, “but it’s not a long-term solution. Today, as we speak, the weather is too warm and no one can make snow.”

Since artificial snow requires temperatures of -4°C, higher resorts will attract more skiers and Elsasser predicts that these more fragile environments could face further degradation.

“In Alpine regions, tourism is the most important industry,” he says. “The winter season is, from the economic point of view, more important than the summer. People spend more money in winter.”

Studies suggest Switzerland could lose as much as â,¬1,2-billion from its tourist industry, figures that leave the Swiss tourist industry frothing with indignation. “Tourism representatives think that climatic change is highly exaggerated by not only the media but also by science and politics,” Elsasser says.—Â



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