It is no longer guaranteed to go skiing during the Christmas holidays – even with snow guns

It is no longer guaranteed to go skiing during the Christmas holidays - even with snow guns

Technical snow production at Gemsstock, Switzerland. Credit: Valentin Luthiger

For many people, a holiday in the snow is as much a part of the end of the year as Christmas trees and fireworks. As global warming progresses, white slopes are becoming increasingly rare. Researchers at the University of Basel have calculated how well one of Switzerland’s largest ski resorts will remain snow-reliable with technical snow production by the year 2100, and how much water this snow will consume.

The future of skiing in Switzerland looks anything but rosy – or rather white. Current climate models predict that there will be more precipitation in winter in the coming decades, but that it will fall as rain instead of snow. Despite this, an investor recently spent several million Swiss francs to expand the Andermatt-Sedrun-Disentis ski resort. A short-term decision they will regret in the future?

A research team led by Dr. Erika Hiltbrunner from the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Basel has now calculated the extent to which this alpine resort can maintain its economically important Christmas holiday and a ski season of at least 100 days with and without snow production.

The team collected data on the aspects of the slopes, where and when the snow is produced on the ski resort and with how much water. They then used the latest climate change scenarios (CH2018) in combination with the simulation software SkiSim 2.0 for projections of snow conditions with and without technical snow production. The results of their research were recently published in International Journal of Biometeorology.

No guarantee of a white Christmas

According to the results, the use of technical snow can actually guarantee a 100-day ski season – in the higher parts of the ski resort (at 1,800 meters and up), at least. But business is likely to be tight during the Christmas holidays for decades to come, with the weather often not cold enough at this time and in the weeks leading up to it.

In the scenario of unabated greenhouse gas emissions, the Sedrun region in particular will no longer be able to offer guaranteed snow over Christmas in the longer term. New snow cannons can remedy the situation to a certain extent, say the researchers, but will not solve the problem completely.

“Many people don’t realize that you also need certain weather conditions for snow production,” explains Hiltbrunner. “It must not be too hot or too humid, otherwise there will not be enough evaporative cooling for the splashed water to freeze in the air and come down as snow.”

Warm air absorbs more moisture, and as winters get warmer, it also becomes increasingly difficult or impossible to produce snow technically. In other words: “Here the laws of physics set clear limits for snow production”.

It is no longer guaranteed to go skiing during the Christmas holidays - even with snow guns

Technical snow production requires certain weather conditions. Credit: Erika Hiltbrunner, University of Basel

540 million litres

Skiing will continue, however, because technical snowmaking at least enables facility operators to keep the higher slopes open for 100 consecutive days—even through the end of the century and with unabated climate change. But there is a high price to pay for this.

The researchers’ calculations show that water consumption for snowmaking will increase significantly, by around 80% for the resort as a whole. In an average winter towards the end of the century, consumption will thus amount to around 540 million liters of water, compared to 300 million liters today.

But this increase in water demand is still relatively moderate compared to other alpine resorts, the researchers emphasize. Previous studies had shown that the water consumption for snow production in the Scuol ski resort, for example, would increase by a factor of 2.4 to 5, because the area covered with snow there must be greatly expanded to guarantee snow safety.

For their analysis, the researchers considered periods of 30 years. However, there are large annual fluctuations: In addition, extreme events are not depicted in the climate scenarios. In the winter of 2017, with low snow levels, water consumption for snow production tripled in one of the three sub-areas of Andermatt-Sedrun-Disentis.

Conflicts over water use

Today, some of the water used for snow production in the largest sub-region of Andermatt-Sedrun-Disentis comes from the Oberalpsee. A maximum of 200 million liters can be withdrawn annually for this purpose. If climate change continues unabated, this source of water will last until the middle of the century, at which point new sources will have to be exploited.

“The Oberalpsee is also used to produce hydropower,” says Dr. Maria Vorkauf, lead author of the study, who now works at the research station Agroscope. “Here we will probably see a conflict between the water requirements of the ski resort and the hydropower production.”

For starters, this ski resort may even benefit from climate change – if lower-lying and smaller ski resorts are forced to close, tourists will move to larger, higher-altitude resorts, one of which is Andermatt-Sedrun-Disentis.

What is certain is that increased snow production will drive up costs and thus also the price of ski holidays. – Sooner or later, people with an average income will simply no longer be able to afford them, says Hiltbrunner.

More information:
Maria Vorkauf et al, Snow production in a warmer climate: an in-depth analysis of future water needs for the ski resort Andermatt-Sedrun-Disentis (Switzerland) in the twenty-first century, International Journal of Biometeorology (2022). DOI: 10.1007/s00484-022-02394-z

Provided by the University of Basel

Citation: Skiing over Christmas holidays no longer guaranteed – even with snow guns (2022, December 28) retrieved December 28, 2022 from

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