Snow-sports and climate change: Costly adaptation and impulses for change from the periphery

    Davos. You will know it as the place where the leaders of the world meet each year at the end of January, at the World Economic Forum. To Swiss snow-sports enthusiasts, Davos is first and foremost known as home to the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF). During the winter months, the renowned research institute issues the national avalanche bulletin twice a day. It is an indispensable resource for ski-touring and freeride aficionados. I paid visit to SLF in early November, to meet with Dr Peter Bebi.


    The village of Davos is located at 1,500 meters above sea-level. With the ski resort reaching up to the peak of Weissfluh, at 2,843 meters of altitude, Davos-Klosters is considered to have guaranteed snow. But that snow is no longer guaranteed to be all natural. Particularly in the lower parts of the mountain, snow-machines have become essential. At the time when I first stood on skis at age two and a half, only a few snow-machines were installed in Switzerland. Today, they are an integral part of every bigger ski resort in the Alps.


    Two cross-country skiers on the cross-country track of Lenzerheide, not far from Davos. They ski on artificial snow, produced with a technology that also allows functions in temperatures above freezing.

    Relying on artificial snow to save the business

    Peter Bebi leads the SLF research on Mountain Ecosystems. He grew up on a farm near Davos and is a passionate cross-country skier. Nowadays, he begins the season on artificial snow, produced by a method called “snow-farming”. Peter explained to me that partly out of necessity, partly to attract professional cross-country skiers, Davos has been betting on snow-farming for the last ten years. To have a cross-country track ready in fall, a huge pile of produced snow is buried under saw dust over the summer and then taken out in October to prepare a 4 km long cross-country loop. Such methods are becoming more popular. According to SLF, about half of all ski resorts are interested in investing in snow-farming as a means to adapt. It’s good news for the snow-farmers. Artificial snow has become a business, the Swiss newspaper NZZ wrote.


    Today, the snow season in Switzerland is 37 days shorter than it was in the 1970s. On average, it starts 12 days later and ends 25 days earlier than it did 40 years ago. In Davos, the most recent victim of the shorter and warmer winters is the natural ice rink. It used to be the fasted ice rink in the world - over 90 world records fell on it during the 20th century. Since 2016 it has been permanently closed, 126 years after it first opened. It is now replaced with an artificial ice rink, relying on cooling installations to be operated.


    In warm and dry years like 2018, even the redemption brought by the snow-machines is no longer guaranteed. In October and beginning of November 2018, it was simply too warm to run the machines, Peter explained. Some might say it is better that way, as the machines can be considered ecological nonsense with their high consumption of electricity and water. Producing one hectare of artificial snow consumes about five times more electricity than what an average four-person household uses per year. Across the Alps, a stunning 280 billion litres of water are needed to run all installed snow-machines. According to an ongoing study of SLF and the University of Bern, that water is by one third diverted from rivers, one third is drinking water and one third comes from springs and lakes. In a possible scenario of more arid years in the Alps, more careful water resources management seems inevitable in the future.


    But still, compared to others, Davos could likely be among the few winners of climate change in the Alps. In summer, more people might be coming up to escape the heat in the cities. In winter, it is still high enough to maintain skiing operations, albeit at a higher cost. The disappearance of small ski resorts in lower altitudes is also playing in its favour. And albeit the risk of natural hazards is increasing, places like Davos are also in a relatively comfortable position thanks to their capacity to attract investment for adaptation, the availability of public money and well-off tourists willing to pay for higher ticket prices.


    To find examples of more eco-friendly tourism, it is helpful to look to other, more peripheral areas. Indeed, small communities in valleys that are not yet covered with ski installations have been showing appetite to innovate. New concepts for more simple and authentic forms of alpine tourism have flourished, maybe also thanks to hiking and outdoor activities becoming more popular. Before I left for my trip across the Alps, my friend Lasse told me that the valley of Safiental is one of those innovative yet authentic places. So we cycled up there in early November to have a look.


    Impulses for change from peripheral valleys …

    Safiental is a hidden valley behind the Rhine gorge, Switzerland’s little grand canyon. Only 905 people live here on an area of 151km2 - that’s six people per square kilometre. It’s one of the few places in Switzerland where you can hear the wolves howl at night, if you are lucky. Half-way up the valley lies the village Tenna. Here you can find the world’s first solar-powered ski-lift, built in 2012. It produces 15 times more electricity than it needs to be run. The excess electricity is used locally and fed into the grid, so the lift has become a source of income for the community, no matter if there is enough snow on the slopes. And the snow in Tenna is guaranteed to be natural - no single snow machine is installed here.


    The world's first solar ski lift stands in Tenna, Switzerland.

    We cycled further up the valley to get to Inner-Zalön, where we met Christian and Marianne Hunger for lunch. The Hungers live in a beautiful wooden Walser house, built in 1651. They are by and large self-supporters and even produce their own cheese and do so in the traditional way, over the fire. Since 1971, Christian is keeping a weather diary, every day writing down how the weather was. The year 2018 was the first year the walnut blossomed, 30 years after the neighbour planted the tree. And of course Christian and his family notice how the weather and the seasons have changed, how summers come earlier and the occasional summer snow does not happen anymore, how the Foehn has changed, and how much more fruit and vegetable are growing in their garden. But the one change that upsets them the most is not climate related. It is the trash that hikers and people who go hiking and ski touring leave on the mountain. I could not believe that passionate outdoor sports enthusiasts, making the effort to come all the way up here, do not have that little bit of respect for nature and people living here. It would be so easy to take your trash with you. It is part of the outdoors etiquette.


    … and peripheral communities

    But the outdoors and action sports community has started to use its influence to provide impulses for changing those behaviours. It is another impulse coming from the periphery, this time represented by the community of backcountry snowboarders and skiers. Protect Our Winters (POW) is probably the leading example. It is an international non-profit with chapters across the globe, initiated by a professional backcountry snowboarder.


    I crossed Furkapass by splitboard. For once, the bike took the cargo-train through the tunnel.

    While cycling across Switzerland, I met with two of the POW Ambassadors: Nicholas Wolken, a snowboard entrepreneur and psycho-therapist, and Matthieu Schaer, one of the world’s best backcountry freestyle snowboarders and holder of a Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering from ETH Lausanne. In a time when action sports have become dominated by major energy brands, selling a dream of accessing untouched, steep mountains in Alaska, Mathieu and Nicholas convey a different message. They speak about their sport as a way to connect with nature, discover the healing force of nature, be humble and value what you have close-by rather than aim for the far-away adventure. They both produce their movies and photos in the backcountry of their home mountains, accessed by train and splitboard, rather than by car and helicopter.


    Snowboarding will not save the planet, Nicholas and Mathieu are of course aware of that. But behind their engagement lies the conviction that everybody can do something within their own sphere of activity to influence others. Up to you to pick yours, if you haven’t already.

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