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  • Writer's pictureHenry

Season Diary - Day 14: You, Me, and Global Warming

Friday was warm. Really warm. Spring had arrived in the Tarentaise Valley, only... three weeks too soon? We were skiing in t-shirt weather and liberally applying sunscreen every opportunity we had.

The thing is, much of this season so far had been thus. This wasn't the first day that spring-like conditions had hit the Alps, with much of January and February experiencing similar weather.

A lot of this can be attributed to El Niño. This is a weather phenomenon that occurs roughly every five to ten years, when ocean currents in the Pacific change direction for no good reason. It wreaks havoc on global weather patterns and, for skiers in the Alps, can mean a swing to the extremes of snowy or sunny seasons.

But, this isn't the first year that conditions have been dry and warm in the Alps.

Global warming is very much here, and it impacts skiing in three key ways; it makes seasons shorter, it raises the snowline, and it makes snowfall more inconsistent. And France is at the forefront of this.


Shortening Seasons

The ski season in France is already short. Opening in the last weekend in November and closing mid-April may seem pretty decent, but by sticking to these dates most French resorts therefore have a shorter season than pretty much anywhere else in Europe or North America.

Different climates in Eastern Switzerland and Austria means that less precipitation is required for snowfall, and higher average resort bases means things turn cooler quicker and easier the further north and east you go. Therefore resorts with a continental climate experience longer seasons anyway than those with a coastal climate such as in France.

And it's getting shorter. Tignes, one of the highest and most traditionally snowsure French Alpine resorts, this year aimed for an opening date on the last weekend of November. This was a week later than the season before, where they had had to push opening because of a lack of snow and were unable to open the links to neighbouring Val d'Isere. It was only by chance that a flurry of snow caught the resort off guard and they were able to open on their normal opening weekend, the penultimate weekend of November.

Tignes showcases shorter seasons in another way, too. It normally hosts at least six weeks of summer skiing on its high Grand Motte glacier. Over the previous two years this has been cut to a fortnight and for race teams only as increasingly warmer weather has reduced snow coverage on the glacier.

The Monte Rosa glacier, high above Cervinia and Zermatt on the Italo-Swiss border, has supposed to have hosted the World's first cross-border FIS ski race each November for the last three years. Every year it has been called off due to a lack of snow.


Higher Freezing Line

I've had the dubious privilege of writing snow overviews for the Ski Club for the last couple of years. One thing I've noticed is where the freezing line has been holding.

Last year, the freezing line - the elevation where temperatures are at 0° Celsius and a broad gauge for where rain turns to snow - was comfortably around 1,500m to 1,800m above sea level. That's high, but low enough for most resorts to get snow when precipitation came.

This year, however, it's been higher still. Easily above 1,800m and probably averaging close to 2,000m. This has played havoc with low elevation resorts such as La Clusaz and Morzine. Devoid of natural snow, they've either had to create artificial snow or ... simply given up. Last season Morzine returned to golf and mountain biking in the middle of January, and Sixt-fer-Cheval, in the Grand Massif areaa, has effectively stopped skiing altogether.

Skiers are beginning to, and indeed should, look for higher resorts in which to ski. A gentle increase in the number of Brits looking at Austria, where again a different climate means a generally lower freezing line, can at least partly be attributed to more consistent snow and snow coverage. This could be the death knell for low altitude skiing especially in France.


Less Consistent Snowfall

Last year, we rolled the dice and moved our annual week's holiday from March to February. Further into the heart of the season, we reasoned, meant better snow.

Except it didn't. For three years in a row now, January and February have been exceptionally dry. There has been no precipitation, not even rain, to fall on the slopes. Resorts have been more and more reliant on the snowpack bases established in November and December to tide them over through the remainder of the season.

There has also been less snowfall earlier in the season, too. Tour operators in the UK have reported a growing slump in bookings taken during September and October, and the same for bookings for departures in December and late in the season. Simply a lack of consistent snowfall is playing havoc on both the snow and the industry.


I can and I will go into the solutions for this, but this is not the time and the place to do so. As we skied over somehow both icey and slushy moguls on our way down into Tignes Le Brevieres - at 1,500m asl - it simply reminded us of one of the biggest problems facing the industry.



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