Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Safe Alpine skiing surfaces under control, for now

(Image provided by

By Kristina Hauptmann

Edited by Hiram Foster

The drastic retreat of Alpine glaciers during the past 30 years has done little to stem the seasonal influx of skiers to the region.

The Austrian Alps have seen an approximate 67 percent increase in winter tourism since 1980, according to data from a Tyrol State Government report issued in January. About 15 million people visited the region in 1980, and about 25 million visited last year, the report said.

The steady arrival of winter guests is seemingly unaffected by the rate at which Alpine glaciers are shrinking. The Alps have lost between 20 and 30 percent of their glacier cover since the 1980s, said Wolfgang Schöner, a climate researcher at the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics in Vienna. The institute also has an observatory at Sonnblick in the central Alps.

Glaciers are thick beds of ice that once covered most of the Northern Hemisphere, and most exist today in mountain regions and at the poles. The last glacial period ended about 10,000 years ago. Alpine glaciers exist at 2,020 meters and higher, Schöner said.

Glaciers are Shrinking

Schöner attributes this century’s glacial retreat to two factors: a rise in average mountain temperatures — about 1.8 degrees Centigrade, more than the global average — and an increase in global radiation. The combination has shrunk the glaciers’ surface area at a rate of 0.5m to 1m a year since 1980, he said.

To remedy snowfall discrepancies, many Alpine regions create artificial snow for mid-range altitudes, which are the most affected by glacial retreat, according to a 2007 report from the Austrian Embassy.

Michael Kuhn, professor of meteorology and geophysics at the University of Innsbruck, said high altitude skiing is not at risk. The greater glacier cover provides a smoother surface upon which skiers only need about 30 cm to ski safely, he said.


But at intermediate altitudes — about 1,500m — where temperatures are higher, less snow accumulates and can leave rocks exposed, Kuhn said. There skiers need at least 50 cm to ski safely, and that’s where artificial snow can help, he said. However, because one cubic meter costs about 3 Euros (about $4), providing enough can become expensive, he added.

The winter tourism industry is also responding by moving skiing areas to higher altitudes, grooming rocky slopes and protecting glaciers with white plastic sheets, according to the Austrian Embassy’s report.

“Covering with fleece or textiles (in summer) can save 70 percent of snow,” Kuhn said. “But it’s also costly and only on strategic points. It’s not feasible or economical to cover all of it.”

The Austrian Embassy’s report also noted the limitations of these practices, both economically and environmentally. Ski slope grooming can undermine the stability of mountain slopes, and moving skiing areas to higher altitudes can threaten the fragile environment, the report said.

Outlook: Not so good

Although the tourism industry’s precautions are working now, they might not be able to keep up with glacier shrinkage in the future, the Austrian Embassy’s report said.

The crux of the problem lies in the increase in summer temperatures, Schöner said. Since 1980, there has been a 50 percent decrease in summer snow, he said. With less snow on the ground, radiation from the sun is absorbed into the glaciated rock instead of being reflected back into space, he said.

“It’s important to have regular snowfall in summertime,” Schöner said. “Because of increased temperature in summer, the glaciers are strongly retreating.”

Still, winter snowfall has not changed much, and skiing is currently not a problem in the Alps, Schöner said.

For now, at least, winter tourism still generates a 7.3 billion Euro (about $9.9 billion) turnover every year, according to the Tyrol State Government report.

“People in Tyrol make still good money in tourism,” said Katleen Johne, who works in Tyrol’s tourism department, via e-mail. “We are in a good position.”

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