When the white gold thaws

Just weeks ago as holiday makers were getting ready to slap on their skis and traverse white winter wonderlands in the Alps, many were met with either closed resorts or narrow artificial runs. The culprit? Unseasonably warm winter weather, including New Year’s Day temperatures in Switzerland of up to 20 degrees Celsius – the highest temperature ever recorded north of the Alps in January.

Source: https://www.les2alpes.com/hiver/live/webcams/

Where do we go without snow?

Experts have long warned that mountain tourism is at risk of getting upended by climate change. A 2007 OECD report projected that 9 out of 10 ski areas in lower-lying parts of Germany and Austria would no longer be natural snow-reliable areas in a 2 degree warming scenario. Yet the pace of change has been startling – the ski season in the Alps used to run until April, but snow depth and coverage has been decreasing steadily in recent decades, especially in the spring.

Source: Rutgers University Global Snowlab

Ecosystems naturally adapt to climate change – but how about the people who rely on them? Mountain regions are home to around 10% of the global population and 12% in the EU. Their unique topography and climactic conditions are a double-edged sword. It both attracts tourist and makes infrastructure and service provision challenging.

The economic consequences of a future without “white gold” could be serious. In France, the ski industry accounts for 200,000 jobs. Its crown jewel, Savoie Mont Blanc, is France’s second-most visited tourist destination after Paris and receives 60% of its visitors in winter. There, downhill skiers spend EUR 5.8 billion or 19% of the area’s GDP, while cross-country skiers spend a further EUR 3.5 billion.

A slippery slope?

As the reliability of natural snow decreases, artificial snow has become the weapon of choice for most ski resorts. However, this could be short-sighted substitute for long-term climate adaptation. A study of Spanish ski resorts found limited benefits to artificial snowmaking because the longer season was offset by the investment, operational and maintenance costs of artificial snow.

Artificial snow brings with it environmental costs. 100% of the snow under the skis of athletes at the 2022 Beijing Olympics was artificial, consuming 185 million litres of water.

Even in Switzerland, where most ski areas are located at higher altitudes and thus “safer” from higher temperatures, resorts will be forced to rely increasingly on artificial snowmaking. In Switzerland’s largest ski area, Andermatt-Sedrun-Disentis, water consumption for snowmaking is expected to increase by 79% by 2099. Some Swiss resorts even rely on town water for snow making.

In France, the municipality of La Clusaz is battling protesters in court over its plans for a new reservoir to be used mainly for the production of artificial snow. In January 2023, environmental activists cut pipes and stole electrical boxes at French resorts, leaving behind the tag “no skiing without snow”.

Are snowless slopes good for anything?

But can mountain areas diversify their offering before it’s too late? Past form on this is not good. Households by the sea or in flood-prone areas tend to under-invest in coastal protection and flood insurance. Research suggests that the world is underinvesting in resilience by at least 70 percent. As such, ski resorts may to cling to artificial snow cannons for as long as possible instead of adopting more sustainable new models.

Yet there are examples of trailblazers, including low-lying Austrian village Sankt Corona, which saw its annual visitor numbers drop from 70,000 to 25,000 between 1994 and 2014. In response, the area invested heavily in diversifying its offerings with mountain biking and other summer sports and now draws 130,000 visitors per season, with summer accounting for two thirds of revenue.

As temperatures rise, there may be benefits for mountain areas too. Higher mountain areas will remain protected from the heat stress in summer, attracting tourists and workers seeking to escape urban heat islands. Similarly, mountain regions could attract remote workers who are increasingly looking to places that have an abundance of natural capital and recreation opportunities, and for whom milder winters may hold some appeal. Vestland county in Norway, Gangwon-do in Korea and the Sierra de la Demanda range in Spain have all developed initiatives to attract young entrepreneurs and remote workers.

Policy makers can’t make it snow, but…

…can they help forge a new future for mountain communities?

Mountain areas will need to invest in infrastructure like broadband, healthcare, and transport to support new sectors. In Quebec, Canada, the provincial government has earmarked $11 million to help mountain resorts diversify their offerings with tourism attractions for all four seasons.

Mountain regions can also benefit from collaborating with peers, local stakeholders and researchers to explore the potential for new activities and possible impacts on the environment. They can also learn lessons through channels like UNESCO’s World Network of Mountain Biosphere Reserves and the U.N.-backed Mountain Partnership. Looking internationally is especially important considering that mountain ranges often traverse borders, with seven countries sharing the Alps.

With the right investments, and a willingness to embrace the future rather than cling to the past, many of these communities can look forward to a bright, if not a white, future.

Read more on the OECD work on regions here.

Engagement and Channels Lead at OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE) | + posts

Iben Holstener Hjorth is Channels and Engagement Lead at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities. Her work focuses on translating OECD data and publications into engaging digital content. Iben has previously worked on communicating about climate change and sustainable finance at the Green Climate Fund and the Nordic Investment Bank. She holds an MA in Global Economy and Strategy from Yonsei University.