At the northern edge of the Alps, ski runs near the foot of Germany’s highest mountain snake down the greenish-brown slopes in narrow white ribbons of artificial snow.

Like other resorts at relatively low altitude, global warming has left its mark on Garmisch-Partenkirchen — the site of the 1936 Winter Olympics—putting the town’s identity and affluence at risk. It’s January, and there’s so little natural snow that anxiety is building whether upcoming ski races can go ahead.

In Garmisch and across the Alps, tourism is a key support for local economies. In neighboring Austria, it makes up just over 6% of economic output, while in the mountainous region of Tyrol the share is more like 18%. The ratio is similar for the Swiss canton of Graubünden, thanks to resorts like St. Moritz, Klosters and Davos.

In France’s Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes region, home to Courchevel and Val d’Isere, tourist spending totaled 21 billion euros ($23 billion) in 2018, generating nearly a 10th of gross domestic product and 171,000 jobs.

That source of income is under genuine threat. Climate change is expected to cost Austrian tourism 300 million euros a year, according to one of the country’s leading environmental protection organizations. In France, authorities in Tignes delayed the start of the ski season by several weeks, citing the effects of global warming on the Grande Motte glacier.

“If greenhouse-gas emissions continue at the same level, snow will almost disappear at lower levels by the end of the century,” said Marc Olefs, head of department for climate research at Vienna’s Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

At an elevation of 800 meters, Garmisch—known for its landmark ski jump—has little prospect of maintaining its status as a winter-sports mecca.

Among visitors, the changing conditions are accepted with quiet resignation.

Juergen Hilla, a school teacher from near Frankfurt, predicted that skiing and other winter sports may not be viable in Garmisch in the longer term and that he and his wife may have to consider alternatives for their ski vacation.

“Probably in 20 or 30 years, it won’t have the same role as it does now,” he added after a day on the slopes. The higher runs were in good shape but the lower ones needed cannons spraying artificial snow to keep them passable, Hilla said.

To make up for a lack of natural snowfall, resorts switch on the cannons, although they’re energy intensive and unpopular with environmentalists. Producing artificial snow will get harder as temperatures rise, Olefs predicted.

The practice didn’t start because of climate change originally—it was meant to make ski resorts less dependent on the whims of nature, according to Robert Steiger, an assistant professor at the University of Innsbruck. But it’s become unavoidable to cope with global warming.

First « 1 2 » Next