Lower-lying ski areas in particular are increasingly dependent on snow cannons due to climate change. (archive image)
Despite the increasingly warm winters, lower-lying ski areas also have a future if they have an efficient snow-making system.
“From a purely technical point of view, the limits of snowmaking in Switzerland are far from exhausted,” says Martin Hofer, Sales Manager of Technoalpin Switzerland, which belongs to the South Tyrolean world market leader for snowmaking systems. With a modern snow-making system, a ski area can be fully covered with snow in three to four days. “That’s the standard value,” says Hofer in an interview with the AWP news agency.
However, many systems in Switzerland do not reach this value because the water supply is too low. Abroad, operators rely more on snow cannons: in Switzerland, a little more than half of the kilometers of slopes have artificial snow, while in South Tyrol it is 95 percent.
Switzerland has technical potential
However, a snowmaking system alone is not enough. There is always the question of how strong the system is, how much snow it can make at what temperature and in what time. “Switzerland still has enormous technical potential,” says the manager of the snow gun manufacturer from Bolzano.
At present, several time windows with cold temperatures are needed for snowmaking on the slopes in this country. Because the production of artificial snow requires an air temperature of -10 to +1 degrees and the lowest possible humidity. To do this, you have to use the cold spells, which will continue to exist, even if climate change leads to higher temperatures, says Hofer.
The most important months for snowmaking are November and December. In cold weather, a ski resort can start the season regardless of snowfall and ensure good slope conditions. This is particularly important for the Christmas business, when the industry makes over a quarter of its turnover.
Natural snow melts faster than artificial snow
Hofer says that once the slopes are covered with snow, they hold up even when the temperature is above zero. This is also because artificial snow melts less quickly than natural snow.
Without a snow-making system, the risk of a false start to the ski season is much greater: not only does it need temperatures below freezing, but also precipitation. According to Hofer, when the important Christmas business falls through due to a lack of snow, the season is already over.
In Switzerland, even lower-lying ski areas are not yet at the end of their potential. With a more powerful system, they could cut the snow-making time in half, says Hofer. This would allow them to keep the slopes open, even if the number of cold days decreases due to climate change.
In many plants in Switzerland, however, this cannot be achieved because the water supply is too low, says Hofer. These could not snow on all slopes at the same time. Then the snowing of the ski area takes longer. “If you haven’t finished the last slope and you have to make snow again on the first slope, you have a problem if there are only three to four cold periods for snow-making,” says the expert.
What is missing in many ski areas
Many Swiss ski areas lack water reservoirs and pumping stations. That requires investments. According to Hofer, the rule of thumb is CHF 1 million per kilometer of slopes.
Without artificial snow, there would no longer be ski tourism in many places, says Hofer: “If there is no snow, that’s it.” When the mountain railways get sick, the Alpine valleys get sick. Because every million that tourists spend on the mountain railways brings more than 6 million in added value in the valley.
Because the ski pass is only an expense item when skiing. In addition, there would be the expenses for travel, food, accommodation, ski rental or ski instructors. If the ski areas were only open for 30 days instead of the current 100 days, investing in hotels, restaurants or other services would no longer be worthwhile.
This would also affect local businesses. The economic basis of many Alpine valleys would be threatened and with it tens of thousands of jobs. The consequence would be an exodus from the valleys.
There is criticism of the water and electricity requirements of the snowmaking systems. Researchers at the University of Basel had calculated that the water consumption for artificial snow will increase significantly if climate change continues unabated.
For the entire Andermatt-Sedrun-Disentis ski area, they predict that water consumption will be around 80 percent higher by the end of the century. In other ski areas, the need is sometimes several times higher.
Calculations in criticism
Today, part of the water for the snowmaking of the largest part of Andermatt-Sedrun-Disentis comes from Lake Oberalp. “Here, conflicts between the water requirements for the ski area and those for electricity generation will probably arise,” said the study by the University of Basel.
Hofer criticizes these calculations: The hydroelectric power plants would use the water times as much as the snowmaking systems. In addition, the water is not consumed, but deposited on the mountain in a different physical state than snow. When the snow melts in spring, the water then flows back down into the valley. Evaporation losses are low when making snow, says Hofer.
And the power consumption of the snow-making systems accounts for only around 0.1 percent of Swiss power consumption. In addition, more modern snow-making systems are more efficient: “In Davos, the overflow from the mountain railway’s own reservoirs is used to produce energy. This enables us to cover 63 percent of our electricity needs for snowmaking,” says Hofer. (SDA)