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There's Not Much Snow in the Alps — So Petting Zoos Are Replacing Skiing

By the end of the century, year-round snow cover is expected only at the highest elevations, while at lower heights, snow my become "ephemeral."
January 11, 2016, 1:30pm
Photo by Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/EPA

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Desperate times call for desperate measures.

In the case of Alpine ski resorts with scanty or nonexistent snow, this can mean some unorthodox adaptation efforts. One French mayor asked locals to stay away from the slopes during the holiday period in order to leave what little snow there was for tourists. Other spots offered petting zoos, paragliding, and ice-skating as alternative entertainment. Many Alpine resorts relied on manmade snow, while one French resort went so far as to helicopter in some powder to be dumped on barren slopes.

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The holiday season in the Alps this year was one of the driest in recent memory. According to Laurent Vanat, a winter sports consultant based in Geneva, the overall economic impact of the decidedly un-white Christmas season could mean a loss of between two to three billion dollars.

In his 2015 International Report on Snow & Tourism, Vanat assessed the world's ski industry to be worth 60 to 70 billion dollars. The Alps are a big player in this global economy, drawing some 44 percent of the world's 400 million global skier visits.

Despite the economic hit over the holidays, Vanat says all is not lost.

"It's a bit early to come to conclusions about the season," he said. "Of course it's damaging for the economy because Christmas and New Year's is a heavy season for ski resorts but it doesn't mean the season is completely ruined."

And while Vanat defends the use of manmade snow for such occasions — he avoids the term "artificial snow" because it connotes chemicals, he says — he doesn't advocate using helicopters to transport snow. "It's simply crazy. It can't be viable economically and it's not sustainable from an ecological standpoint. These were extreme measures taken in some very little spots that were lacking snow and desperate."

It was not the first time for snow to be dropped by helicopter. A similar operation took place in panicked preparation for the 2010 winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. When snow levels proved inadequate for ski competitions, the Olympic committee resorted to airlifting snow by helicopters and ground-transporting it by truck.

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Jean-Paul Silva, director of France Montagnes, an association that brings together major stakeholders in France's mountain tourism industry, remains optimistic about what is to come. Things are already turning around in Haute-Savoie, the department where he is based in the eastern Alps region of France, bordering France and Italy. "Now it's snowing, and snowing a lot, and that's reassuring for the rest of the season."

According to Silva, this isn't the first time for little to no snow during the holidays — he recalls the winters of 1964, 1989, and 1990 — and adds that a lack of snow doesn't always mean catastrophe, or even disgruntled customers.

"It's surprising, but when it's really beautiful weather, clients are happy. They have lunch and aperitifs outside on the terrace, and they find other things to do than ski," he said. "Another important thing to remember is that all of this was during Christmas holidays, and at Christmas the priority isn't skiing but family."

Silva is quick to point out that the season is only beginning. Winter officially started on December 21, and the French ski season lasts until late April or even early May, with a typically heavy flow of visitors during France's school holidays in late February and mid-April.

"France started to diversify offerings several years ago — today this industry is not just about skiing, but about mountain vacations with a lot of other options such as hiking, biking, aquatic centers and restaurants," Silva said, adding that winter sports tourism brings in an annual revenue of 10 million euros to France annually, and provides some 150,000 jobs.

Skiers in Leysin, Switzerland descend a slope covered with artificial snow, surrounded by green fields during the& Christmas holiday. (Photo by Laurent ;Gilleron/EPA)

Though the diversification of winter sports tourism wasn't designed with climate change in mind, it will be useful, even crucial, if some scientists' predictions for the coming decades prove accurate.

Christoph Marty, a scientist at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland, warns that major changes are expected by the end of this century. In a paper published recently in Theoretical and Applied Climatology, Marty and fellow scientists calculated predictions based on 11 stations across Switzerland representing diverse climates. The paper, intended as "a basis for policy makers in the fields of tourism, ecology, and hydropower," contains dramatic findings:

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"Toward the end of the twenty-first century, a continuous snow cover is likely only guaranteed at high elevations above 2000 meters above sea level, whereas at mid-elevations, roughly 50 percent of all winters might be characterized by an ephemeral snow cover," he said. "Low elevations, which are below 500 meters, are project to experience only 2 days with snowfall per year and show the strongest relative reductions in mean winter snow depth of around 90 percent."

"Of course a season like this one emphasizes the impact of climate change, but maybe too much," said Vanat. "Already 40 years ago we knew that this could happen."

To Silva, finding balance between the economic, ecological, and social aspects of Alpine tourism has always been part of the game. "We'd love to have snow all the time but our philosophy is to adapt," he said. "We deal with it."

Related: These People Are Covering the Alps With Blankets

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