Winter sports and nature
Winter tourism is highly popular in the Alps. In fact, the Alps have the best and most extended infrastructure of all mountain regions on our globe. This is actually no surprise, since St. Moritz in Switzerland is known for being the birthplace of Winter tourism itself. Since the year 1864 tourists have come there to enjoy the stunning mountain panorama which is covered in snow and racing down the pistes. However, times are changing and there are two triggering questions I want to discuss in this article. With changing times, I mean the era of climate change. It is common knowledge now that humankind has managed to emit so much CO2 and other greenhouse gases that we created a global warming which happens much faster than it would happen in a natural warming period of our planet, so that ecosystems simply cannot keep up with the rapid changes. Mountain regions are very climate-sensitive areas and therefore, there have to be found and implemented adaptation strategies in winter tourism very quickly. On the other hand, there is another pressing problem: alongside huge demand often goes an overuse of natural resources and natural destruction. Since this website is all about being a responsible tourist, I also, want to delve into the environmental impacts of skiing in this article. I, myself, have often heard the arguments that making and preparing the pistes in skiing regions is harshly damaging the plants and soil underneath the snow and that snow-making in lower heights is using tremendous amounts of water.
There is already a lot of scientific literature about the impacts of climate change on winter tourism since it is a very pressing topic right now. In contrast, it is more difficult to find something about the environmental impact of skiing. However, I managed to dig out some literature. So keep on reading!
The Alps will be facing milder and shorter Winters and the weather will be more unreliable. This makes it very difficult to further rely on winter tourism, especially in lower-altitude ski resorts like in Southern Germany. Many of the skiing regions have built their entire infrastructure for winter tourism and now have to deal with major changes in the climate. Because tourist operators in the Alps are facing such major challenges the Alpine Convention of 2009 launched the “Action Plan of Climate CHange in the Alps.” It includes three solutions for coping with climate change: first, operators must reduce CO2 emissions and offer sustainable transport. Secondly, carbon “carbon-neutral” holidays should be promoted. Lastly, and that’s the most important one, winter tourism operators have to diversify their offer in order to adapt to climate change. For instance, considering that there is already much less snow in lower-attitude skiing regions, operators are forced to increasingly rely on artificial snow-making in order to meet their guests demands. On the one hand, it is obvious that winter tourism operators have to adapt in order to keep their business running. But are those adaptation strategies really environmentally sustainable?
I’ve often heard critique on using artificial snow and also, skiing as an activity which destroys nature. Indeed artificial snow-making uses lots of energy and water. To grasp the amount of energy used: in American ski resorts snow-making accounts for half of the total energy use. Also, artificial-snowmaking requires infrastructure and resorts often use mineralized water. Taking this water changes the chemical and mineral composition of groundwater and therefore, pollutes drinking water. Furthermore, skiing also has impacts on biodiversity. D.J. Davis has conducted a study in the Low Tatras National Park in Slovakia on the vegetation of ski slopes. He compared grasslands located on pistes, off pistes and on the edge of pistes, and within these also the grassland management was taken into account. He found that the human impact had severe consequences. The number of species on grasslands of pistes was the lowest in comparison with for instance the grasslands with no management. Those had the highest number of species. The same influence has been found on mosses and plant species.
Overall, winter tourism operators are facing huge challenges in adapting to climate change. The short-term adaptation of artificial snow-making does not seem to be a useful solution because of its huge energy usage and environmental impacts. Besides,
skiing itself is not an environmentally friendly activity if we think of the grasslands below the snow cover. Therefore, it seems that the best adaptation strategy, by far, is diversifying activities. That means reducing the skiing activity itself and therefore, avoiding waltzing more pistes and making snow from groundwater.