We’re seeing decreasing snow in mountain regions around the world. But there is more at stake than a photographic background or the perfect ski run.
People work on a tarpaulin which cover the ice of the Corvatsch glacier, near Samedan, Switzerland, 5 September 2022. (Gian Ehrenzeller/Keystone via AP)
This article, by high school student Luis Eberl was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Luis is a student at Realgymnasium Rämibühl, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.
This story won third prize in News Decoder’s 14th Storytelling Contest.
Snow plays an important role for the economy of Switzerland and places like the western United States. Yet, because of climate change, there is less and less of it every year. At the same time, melt from mountain glaciers has global repercussions.
“The snow line is increasing from year to year. In Switzerland, it has risen 400 meters in the last hundred years and is expected to rise another 400 meters in the next 40 to 50 years,” said Reto Knutti, a climate physicist working at the Institute for Theoretical Studies (ETH) in Zurich.
To remedy the situation, millions and millions of Swiss francs are spent on new snow cannons and artificial snow systems.
But does this still make sense? Isn’t this already a losing battle? And what are the consequences for the environment?
Knutti said that snow plays an enormous economic role in Switzerland. But snow is also economically indispensable in the U.S. states of Colorado, Utah and California.
Melting mountain glaciers cause global harm.
The tourism sector in these places depend on snow. Not only ski resorts, hotels in mountain regions and ski lodges would be affected by a lack of snow, but so would winter services such as snow removal, gritting and many other industries.
Furthermore, Knutti said, in order to be able to continue to operate these services, millions and millions of Swiss francs are invested in snow-making equipment in an attempt to reduce the snow’s retreat. But how much does artificial snow really help?
One big problem is the inconsistency of snowfall. It is difficult to plan a tourism season around snow, because sometimes there is plenty of it but then it might suddenly rain, reducing the amount of snow.
Knutti said this is also the reason why we have seen an increasing number of ski races having to be canceled at the last second.
The artificial covering of the glaciers reflects the sun’s rays from a protective layer, which is laid over the glacier. That allows the glacier to absorb less heat. Such protective layers are applied throughout Switzerland, for example at the Rhone Glacier. This method is said to prevent up to 70% of seasonal glacier melt.
“It can be said that artificial protection of glaciers may work in the short term, but in the long term the change of nature is stronger than any technology,” Knutti said.
Snow cannons aren’t the solution.
Snowmaking systems are also used to enable skiing in lower areas. But this, too, is only a means of delaying the consequences of climate change, Knutti said.
There is an additional problem at hand. To produce snow artificially, a certain minimum temperature of minus two degrees Celsius is required. If this temperature cannot be reached, even the best machines cannot produce snow, Knutti said.
Artificial snow is not cheap. One kilometer of artificial snow costs about 1 million francs or roughly $1,106,000. The transport of the water and the operation of the snow cannons consumes enormous amounts of energy, Knutti said. And all that money and energy is wasted if rain showers wash away the snow soon after production.
Besides the energy consumed, the production of snow has other adverse effects on the environment.
Snow cannons run mostly at night and are loud, comparable to the noise level of a busy road. Knutti said that this disturbs and drives away wildlife.
Meanwhile, the structure of artificial snow is more compact than that of natural snow. Plants can get trapped under the snow and die from lack of oxygen.
For long term solutions, we have to fight climate change.
But what is the alternative? In Switzerland over 54% of ski areas are artificially snowed, according to the statistics platform Statista; in the western United States artificial snow covers 20-40% of ski areas.
“So far, unfortunately, there is no long-term solution,” Knutti said. “Yes, you can cover the glaciers and produce artificial snow, but this is not a permanent solution.”
One should rather put in the effort to recreate the ski resorts in higher altitudes, and not invest more in small ski resorts that in a few years will no longer be profitable, Knutti said.
One should not try to stock up on ever newer and more expensive machines in the fight against global warming, but instead move to higher altitudes.
The only long-term solution though, Knutti said, is to stop climate change.
Three questions to consider:
- Why is so much money and effort spent to create artificial snow?
- Besides the consumption of energy, how else does artificial snow creation negatively affect the environment?
- What are scientists doing to save glaciers from melting?
Luis Eberl is in his final year of high school at Realgymnasium Rämibühl in Zurich, Switzerland. He enjoys studying natural sciences, including Chemistry and Geography. In his free time, he likes to go mountain biking with friends, perform karate and play the saxophone and clarinet.