Standing up to your knees in snow at 1,800 metres above sea level whilst at a ski resort is not an unusual occurrence in itself but indicates one potential anomaly: assuming the scenario doesn’t relate to off piste terrain then why hasn’t the particular area been groomed for winter sports aficionados? The answer might surprise, especially when my experience occurred during this side of the third millennium, an era often inextricably linked with the otherwise undeniable signs of Climate Change.
It was the third week of May 2004, during a stay at the historic but fading Hotel Bellevue above Lake Bohinj in Slovenia, where my peregrinations took me to the top station of the Vogel cableway – an altitude of 1,535 metres and over 3,300 feet higher than the cerulean lake. The ski season at Vogel typically lasts between early December and when Easter falls on a early date in April, which meant my visit was 5-6 weeks after the last skiers other than tourers had vacated the mountain. Rigidity in schedules normally associated with servicing the cableway and Orlove Glave chairlift preclude extending the season to accommodate late falls of snow, something that can in theory be overcome should snow fall early, for example in November, what with the lifts otherwise operating more or less continuously throughout the year.
This year of course has been like no other, and the first day of May 2021 has skiers at Vogel who first submitted negative Covid-19 test results enjoying what has otherwise been a heavily curtailed winter season, in springtime, but still in the midst of conditions that Vogel cannot always take for granted during the more conventional months for snow sports.
When I think of the numerous resorts of a similar altitude that I have visited there will be few, if any, including some situated at greater elevations where the last of threads of winter’s coat will still be in abundance, or even down to the final glimpses of the Alps’ white gold. Why though does the Julian Alps, Vogel, and its altitudinal superior Kanin above Bovec receive disproportionate amounts of snow when much higher regions of for example Austria and Switzerland look on with envious eyes?
Can we suggest that altitude does not directly relate to the depth and consistency of snowfalls in the same way that the higher reaches of the Alps do not necessarily correlate to tougher terrain for hikers? Insomuch that differing conditions experienced both underfoot and climatically at similar altitudes can be explained away by regional variations, that is to say regions within regions, but generally unusual levels of snow experienced at for example 1,800 metres in one place but not another comes down to meteorological quirks, which may have their derivation in or be heavily influenced by Climate Change. Studies have suggested this to be the case in northeastern Italy, and the neighbouring Julian Alps of Slovenia.
My experiences of Vogel have found it to be an ‘all or nothing’ ski area, where snow can fail to fall for long periods which in effect shuts down its winter capabilities, or if anything too much snow can occur – leading to piste closures and even the risk of avalanches. This would therefore bear out the unique conditions in the Adriatic Sea that can align to produce large amounts of rain in the littoral regions of Slovenia and northeastern Italy, before coalescing with colder air that at times generates extremely significant snow events further inland.
This is not a theoretical scenario nor a new phenomenon, if indeed it can be called that, but the intensity of its outcomes are being influenced by Arctic amplification, a result of the warming of the Northern Hemisphere and the changing trajectory of atmospheric flows precipitated by an accelerated loss of sea ice. Where the Adriatic is juxtaposed with the Alps it has always played a part in the weather conditions experienced in the mountains of northwest Slovenia and those along the Italian frontier, Climate Change is now amplifying this effect, rather than simply being the cause.
This to me is what Global Warming or Climate Change, call it what you will, is all about – the augmentation of pre-existing conditions that have a greater effect on the immediate landscape and wider world than they once did. Standing in 1.5-2 feet of snow in May at a relatively modest altitude does not automatically signal a shift in climatic norms, but gives some indication of potential longer term weather patterns that may affect areas of the Julian Alps, and how its ski resorts will struggle to plan for winters that will continue to be all, or nothing.