Dwindling Snow Leaves Swiss Alpine Villages Staring at an Identity Crisis (2023)



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An unusually warm winter has forced a rethink about climate change in areas with lower peaks as ski resorts and sporting events face an uncertain future.

Dwindling Snow Leaves Swiss Alpine Villages Staring at an Identity Crisis (1)

By Erika Solomon

Erika Solomon spent three days in the Swiss and German Alps speaking to people in villages struggling with a scarcity of snow. She reported from Sattel, Switzerland.

It was the last thing Simon Bissig, a ski resort director, wanted to see as he trudged into the Swiss Alps guesthouse on a January day. The bright wooden lodge should have been crowded with parents sipping hot drinks as they cheered on children gliding down the slopes.

Instead, it was empty, and in place of frosty windows, the panes were lashed with rain.

Where guests would have dined, an unlikely crisis session was being held. Marketing advisers reviewed plans for what had become a gnawing, existential question: What could be done with a ski resort without enough snow?

“I think we have to see that something is dying,” said Michelle Furrer, the manager of the guesthouse, which is on the same slope as the ski resort, Sattel-Hochstuckli, that Mr. Bissig runs. “We have to accept that, and then we can try to build — to find something else.”

It is hard for employees at the resort and many villagers in the town of Sattel, just under 30 miles from Zurich, to acknowledge that the days of skiing there may be numbered.

As the planet warms, Europe has faced a bruising year of climate crises. In the summer, many regions suffered severe drought and record heat. Already this year, some areas have seen the highest-recorded winter temperatures — so warm that many ski resorts could not even make snow.

For Switzerland, whose glaciers and snowpack form a crucial storehouse for European water supplies, the effect has been especially alarming. The country is warming at more than double the rate of the global mean and its glaciers lost 6 percent of their volume in the last year alone, according to Swiss federal authorities and a glacier monitoring group.

The changes pose a risk to some parts of a Swiss ski industry that by some estimates generates around $5.5 billion a year. But in a country where nearly everyone skis, the loss of snow is more than an economic or environmental danger. It is a threat to national identity.


“Skiing here was something like the people’s sport,” Mr. Bissig said. “And you feel that, little by little, that is diminishing. It’s very sad.”

For years, people in places like Sattel, where the tallest peaks are about 5,250 feet above sea level, thought they would be spared the worst snow loss. Now, climate scientists say places below 6,500 feet will most likely face a future without snow if current warming rates continue. Even those higher up, a recent study suggested, could probably survive as tourist destinations only with the help of the energy- and water-intensive production of artificial snow.

When recent temperatures made even fake snow a challenge, social media was flooded with videos of crowds of tourists skiing down narrow strips of artificial snow on green Alpine slopes. Local tabloids skewered Swiss resorts for desperate measures, including bringing in snow by helicopter and offering alternative entertainment, like hiking with goats.

Last week, a new wave of precipitation augured snowier weeks ahead for higher Alpine resorts. But the problems are not over. Sattel-Hochstuckli, which used to average 12 to 25 inches of snow by now, has only three inches, and much of that is being washed away by rain.

At Sattel-Hochstuckli, Mr. Bissig opened the summer toboggan chutes for the Christmas tourist season. Elsewhere in Sattel, residents are developing yearlong tourism strategies.

For decades, Herrenboden, a rustic wooden lodge nestled between the slopes, had been a winter-only ski chalet. But Silvan and Julia Betschart, who run it, have turned the three-generation family hotel and restaurant — decorated with sheep skins and deer antlers — into a year-round destination, catering to hikers in warmer months.

Mr. Betschart refuses to let the warm winter frighten him and is still skeptical that the main cause is climate change. “We have had periods of bad winters,” he said. “I was born in a snowless winter, and this year my daughter was. The snow comes back.”


But climate scientists say there is a clear decline in snow.

“Statistically, it’s a super strong pattern: We are getting more and more years with less and less snow,” said Sabine Rumpf, a professor of environmental science at the University of Basel.

Her team has conducted satellite research showing that nearly 10 percent of snow cover was no longer present in the summer months on Alpine regions at 5,577 feet above sea level.

Sonia Seneviratne, at the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science in Zurich, said last summer was particularly unsettling because some glaciers lost up to 20 feet of ice. If global leaders do not act to limit warming to a threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius, she said, the deterioration will quicken.

“The best case is that winters like this come again every so often,” she said. “The worst case is that in the future, this will look like a really good winter.”

Swiss resort managers who use fake snow bristle at criticism over their sometimes high-energy-use efforts to cope with the lack of snow. Gstaad, a popular ski destination between Geneva and Bern, faced days of disparaging headlines and critiques from Green Party politicians after using a helicopter to transport snow and re-cover a ski run washed out by rain.


Matthias In-Albon, the chief executive of Gstaad, said that the route was critical for keeping many mountain slopes connected, and that many places in Alpine areas use helicopters year-round for bringing in food and supplies. One lift of snow was “elaborate,” he agreed, but the bigger problem was the expectations of customers in the modern era of mass tourism.

In previous decades, Mr. In-Albon said, skiers accepted that holiday trips were at the mercy of the weather.

“People were used to finding rocks on the piste from time to time, or that all slopes were not open at Christmas,” he said. “Nowadays, guests expect all slopes open for Christmas. If you don’t do that, then the customers will book in another destination.”

In the Alps, rural mountain communities have become dependent on that business, he said, working at ski lifts and hotels to supplement farming or other traditional incomes the rest of the year. “We have a micro-economy here that works, thanks to the winter tourism,” Mr. In-Albon said.

The economic impact is already being felt at Sattel-Hochstuckli, where Mr. Bissig said the resort could lose half of its profits this year if enough snow does not fall.

Ms. Furrer, the guesthouse manager, has been allowing guests to cancel reservations. Most of the hotel rooms are empty, and she dreads the morning phone calls to her staff.

“I have to call them and say, Don’t come, we don’t have enough customers,” she said. “It makes my heart break.”

She has been applying for government aid for employees when a business is in trouble.


Sports events have suffered, too. In Germany’s Alps, the Alpine skiing World Cup canceled some events because unseasonable winter rain had ruined prepared ski runs.

In the Bavarian village of Ruhpolding, the tourism director, Gregor Matjan, helped the town save its longtime tradition of a Biathlon World Cup, a race mixing cross-country skiing with rifle shooting.

This year, biathlon attendees slopped through mud to watch competitors whip along a track made of “farmed snow” — snow stored and packed from the previous winter and covered in reflective tarp. Because the covered piles require no electricity for cooling, he said, it is a relatively environmentally friendly option.

“This year was really exceptional, but we know that due to climate change, years like this will come more often,” he said. “So we have to find ways to deal with the economic impact.”

Some, like Thomas Schmid in Sattel, have opened businesses that embrace the coming change.

Mr. Schmid, a professional asset manager, sold off his father’s traditional Alpine cattle herd and bought goats, shocking some of his neighbors. But goats, he said, with their small hooves and lighter weight, cause less damage to Alpine vegetation more exposed without winter snow cover. And goats can resist the varying temperatures better than cows.

He and his sisters have now opened a restaurant and shop, Blüemlisberg, and are experimenting in making goat-milk chocolates and ice cream. They invite tourists’ children to come play with the goats, and hikers to end mountain treks at their restaurant with goat cheese fondue.

“I’m from here — it hurts me, too, to think we cannot ski here anymore,” Mr. Schmid said. “But people are starting to come to terms with this. The climate is changing. So we have to, too.”


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