Significant snowfall in the Alps over the last few weeks has done much to reinvigorate some already worn pistes, with certain areas receiving their first measurable, and much welcome, dump of the season. As though is often the case precipitation was far from evenly spread across the ranges of central Europe, with some lower-lying resorts disproportionately benefiting from localized conditions that in places generated several metres of fresh powder. It is indeed rare for Saalbach, the Wildschoenau, and Seefeld to eclipse their higher altitude rivals, although tourism chiefs in St. Anton, Obergurgl, and Lech will be content with conditions once the whiteouts gave way to bluebird skies.
A high-pressure weather system sitting over but centred slightly east of the United Kingdom drove northerly winds down its eastern flank straight into central Europe, spearing a precipitation-bearing low pressure into the heart of southern Germany, the Tirol, and Salzburgerland. Particularly slow-moving and persistent the snow clouds were effectively ground to a halt by the Alps themselves, initially preventing resorts in northern Italy and the higher reaches of north western Slovenia from sharing in the white bounty. Bovec and Vogel above Bohinj have this week finally come to the party, and whilst up to two and half feet of fresh snow is welcome in both, each are currently hampered by poor visibility and little prospect of further snow in the near future.
The last few weeks have in essence proved what a precarious business the winter sports sector has increasingly become. Whilst for regions who’ve thrown all their economic eggs in the ski and boarding basket a compelling case will always exist to produce artificial snow, the environmental cost, specifically the amount of water required as part of the process, is significant when summer seasons themselves are becoming drier, hotter, and subsequently more volatile. The depressing sight of man-made water storage lakes can be seen from many an Austrian mountain summit, from where stored precipitation is drawn to produce what Mother Nature has failed to do so. The fact that many, but far from all, mountain lifts operate in the warmer months for hikers and climbers doesn’t necessarily offset a poor winter season when so many resorts give away free lift passes/resort cards to summer visitors. The amount of money tied up in winter sports infrastructure and associated businesses, in Austria alone, runs to many billions but is, in the end, the reality of business models predicated on something that cannot be controlled: the weather. To have the apparatus in place for patrons is one thing, for the conditions to play ball is quite another.
The unsophisticated winter sports scene on Vogel above Bohinj is in many ways a pleasing antithesis to the hurly burly, pell mell circus associated with many French and Austrian resorts. Prior to this week’s snowfall its cable-car that operates between Ukanc and Rjava Skala had seen a sizeable drop in footfall due to the unsuitable condition of most of Vogel’s pistes. There has for some time been a effort to allow a full artificial snow capability on Vogel and its surroundings, although the Triglav National Park(TNP) authority who heavily control development in the Bohinj area – the bottom station is within the TNP’s most protected central zone – have flexed their muscles on this issue, primarily on the grounds of the environmental harm associated with the amount of water that will be given up. The Julian Alps are not simply known as the ”sunny side of the Alps” to attract sun worshipers, but in a broader sense to highlight the warmer temperatures it records, influenced by the Adriatic Sea, than ranges of a similar altitude. Again, depending on the luck of the draw, snow, and the temperatures required to produce its artificial equivalent, can be non-existent, or, a cold front approaching from Slovenia’s seaboard can envelop Vogel and its environs, the first mountain range such a meteorological scenario would encounter. Either no snow or too much, the accusation that the success or failure of winter sports seasons is based upon kismet gains yet further credence.
Such uncertainty in the Alps is hardly revelatory or a breaking story, but the continued investing in brand new lifts, further undermining the environment and without the promise of financial returns to either justify the expense nor turn a profit, indicates an oblivious, headlong dash towards an uncertain future with complete disregard for the potential consequences. Reliable snowfall nor the temperatures in which to produce its ersatz alternative could ever be guaranteed, but the inexorable march of Climate Change could herald more ‘green’ winters in the future, which will fail to mask the uglification of the Alps brought about by the conspicuousness of pylons, cableways and the loss of arboriculture to accommodate them that winter’s coat does a sterling job to do. There is therefore a real danger that the Alps’ unique selling points will be undermined, turning away those who its tourist associations are seeking to attract with yet more lifts and bulldozed mountainsides.
From an ephemeral perspective Europe’s recent blizzards kept the tills ringing, but succinctly highlights the nature of the winter sports beast, and the rickety foundations on which it is based. The demographic of many of the Alps’ visitors allows them to travel at a minute’s notice from neighbouring central European countries, in effect meaning outside of the pre-booked plans of those staying at Christmas and New Year, occupancy rates in resort hotels will be depressed when the weather fails to deliver. There can be few sectors of the business world where so much is speculated in such a climate, no pun intended, of uncertainty.