How climate change left French ski resorts fighting for survival

As dozens of French ski resorts were forced to close due to a lack of snow this week, Professor of Geopolitics Klaus Dodds looks at the long-term impact of the climate crisis on the Alps and their ski industry.

How climate change left French ski resorts fighting for survival
Workers dismantle the ski lift at Saint-Fermin, a French resort that has not had enough snow for more than a decade. Photo by OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE / AFP

Skiing was introduced into the Alps comparatively late in the 1880s, with the first ski-lift being developed in the Swiss resort of Davos in the winter of 1934. The industrial revolution was two centuries old by that point, but the world climate was still largely pre-industrial.

With no reason to worry about the weather, tourism took off. Thomas Cook had begun offering opportunities for the British to ski in the first decade of the 20th century and Alpine skiing became further popularised with its introduction into the 1936 Winter Olympics leading to a big growth in skiing infrastructure.

All of which depended on a regular and predictable winter season with fresh snow replenishing those ski runs. Ski resorts were able to promise their visitors smooth surfaces, safe upward transport and machines on duty to reposition snow as and when required.

But finding cold and snow has proved harder in recent years. The small French village of Saint-Firmin recently removed its ski-lift (which dated back to 1964) because there has simply been a lack of snow for over a decade. This year, seven of eight early-season World Cup skiing events have been cancelled due to another very warm summer in the Alps, when record-breaking temperatures reminded us that high-altitude environments are not immune to excessive heat.

The omens are not good. Average temperatures have already risen by 2C since pre-industrial times, roughly double the global average. Since ice and snow is more reflective than the underlying rock and soil, with less of it on the ground more heat is absorbed and not radiated away from land. Warmer ground in turn makes it harder for snow to gather and remain frozen, and so on.

2022 was a particularly terrible year for Swiss glaciers with excessive melting and entire glaciers disappearing. Windblown Saharan sand even shrouded alpine snow in mid-March, turning it an eerie Mars-like orange and therefore causing it to absorb even more heat.

Long-term forecasting suggests that the Alps overall could be glacier-free every summer by 2100, with only high-altitude patches of snow and ice remaining. To avoid that scenario, the world would have to reduce emissions markedly in the intervening period. Without snow, skiing and other winter activities simply can’t happen.

Bearing all that in mind, Alpine countries have been forced to experiment and innovate. In Switzerland, glaciers such as the Rhone glacier have been blanketed with permeable fabrics to slow melting. But these carry their own consequences in terms of material degradation and local pollution.

Ski resorts are not resting on their seasonal laurels. In resort villages across the Alps, there is increasing interest in how to develop a carbon-neutral tourist industry that places far less emphasis on plane and car travel.

With a shorter skiing season, some resorts are looking to promote alternatives such as winter walking holidays while others warn that skiing and snowboarding will become increasingly the preserve of the rich and privileged as resorts are forced to invest in more artificial snow production and snow-preservation methods.

Winter activities are crucial to Europe’s mountainous countries and the Alpine Convention (which entered into force in 1995) was an attempt by signatories including Austria, France, Germany, and tiny Monaco to co-ordinate approaches to resources, transport, and tourism.

But record-breaking temperatures and glacial retreat does create tensions, as water shortages affect capacity to generate hydroelectric power and disrupts water supply for downstream users across the region. Retreating snow and ice could in the future become the object of discord as Alpine neighbours come to terms with the idea that there is no longer a bountiful seasonal cycle of fresh and frozen water.

The outlook is bleak for skiing and winter sports in the European Alps. According to Swiss reports, 50 percent of the country’s ski slopes were covered in artificial snow for the 2020-21 season, which is formed by blasting tiny droplets of water into the air. This is very water- and energy-intensive. While there are now more energy efficient approaches to making snow, the process will always require lots of water and temperatures low enough for the mist to freeze and turn to snow.

Saving the winter economy in alpine resorts will prove very challenging. Skiing won’t disappear overnight but it will find itself operating in a Europe where winter as we know it appears to be disappearing.

Klaus Dodds is a professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway University in London. This article first appeared in The Conversation.

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France probes case of man gravely injured at water protest

French prosecutors said on Wednesday they were probing the case of a man seriously wounded at a demonstration over access to water, after his family filed a criminal complaint.

France probes case of man gravely injured at water protest

The 32-year-old has been fighting for his life in a coma since Saturday’s thousands-strong environmental protest against a new “mega-basin” gathering water for irrigation in the western Deux-Sevres region.

The probe was prompted by his parents, who filed a complaint alleging attempted murder as well as the prevention of access by first responders.

READ MORE: Méga-bassines: Why has a dispute over irrigation in French farmland turned violent?

Protest organisers said on Tuesday that the man, from the southwestern city Toulouse, was seriously wounded when he was struck in the head by a tear gas grenade fired by police.

“People close to him are determined to bear witness and uncover the truth about what happened,” they added.

The case is being investigated by military prosecutors in western city Rennes who have jurisdiction over France’s gendarmes — police officers belonging to the armed forces.

Warlike scenes of Saturday’s clashes between around 5,000 protesters and 3,200 police in the open fields made headlines over the weekend.

Fielding helicopters, armoured vehicles and water cannon, security forces fired thousands of tear gas grenades and dozens of other projectiles in a response the DGGN police authority described as “proportionate to the level of threat”.

Authorities say officers were faced with “an unprecedented explosion of violence” and targeted with Molotov cocktails and fireworks.

Ambulance access

But Human Rights League (LDH) observers on the scene said police made “unrestrained and indiscriminate use of force” against all the demonstrators, rather than targeting violent groups or individuals.

AFP journalists saw police begin using tear gas as soon as the marchers arrived.

Prosecutors in nearby Niort counted 47 wounded police and seven demonstrators requiring medical aid, including two in danger for their lives — one of whose condition has since improved.

Protest organisers complained of 200 wounded, 40 seriously including one person who lost an eye.

In an audio recording published by daily Le Monde, a member of the ambulance service told the LDH that “commanders on the ground” were holding them back from the scene, without identifying individuals.

The service said on Twitter Tuesday that “sending an ambulance with oxygen into an area with clashes is not recommended given the risk of explosion”.

Deux-Sevres’ prefect — the top government official in the region — wrote in a Tuesday report to the interior ministry that it was “very difficult” for ambulances to reach wounded demonstrators as “the clashes had not stopped or were starting again”.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has responded to the clashes by vowing to ban one of the associations that organised the protests.