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Climate change and winter tourism: Ecological and economic effects of artificial snow
Reliable snow conditions represent a crucial economic prerequisite for the skiing industry. The lack of snow due to low precipitation or high temperatures is an immense challenge for winter sport destinations and especially the mountain railway companies. Artificial snow production is the key adaptation strategy to rising temperatures, enhanced economic competition and increasing requirements of winter tourists. The increase in snowing facilities in the Alps has been dramatic in recent years.
Within this project researcher of the Swiss Federal Institute of Snow and Avalanche Research SLF, the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL and the HSR Hochschule für Technik Rapperswil analysed the economic, ecological and social effects of artificial snow in the three Swiss tourism regions Davos, Scuol and Braunwald. The study was developed in close co-operation with the mountain railway companies, local authorities and tourism agencies of these three destinations.
The SLF is project partner of the INTERREG IIIB Project “ClimChAlp - Climate change, impacts and adaptation strategies in the Alpine Space”, supported by the EU.
The Study was published at the 7th of Dezember 2007 on a media conference.
The aim of this study was to analyze the relevance of snow production for mountain railways, tourism destinations and tourists as well as to demonstrate impacts on the regional economy, resource consumption (water, energy) and the environment. We addressed the following research questions:
The results of this study add to an objective discussion of the topic “artificial snow” and can be a basis for decision-making in planning and implementing of snowing facilities. They can help with developing of adaptation strategies in the face of climate change.
The effects of artificial snow production on the regional added-value of Davos
To investigate effects of artificial snow production on the regional economy, we analyzed its added-value for the community of Davos. The analysis is based on an existing regional input-output model for the community of Davos from 2002. The model connects between the added value in different economic sectors and the aggregate demand.
The analysis demonstrated the central role of the tourism sector for the economy of Davos; 40% of the aggregate demand is generated by tourism. Winter tourism contributes 26% to the aggregate income. Mountain railways generate 5% of the total aggregate income.
Our calculations indicate that artificial snow production could prevent losses of up to 10% of the regional aggregate income of the community of Davos in winters with poor snow cover. Therefore, the entire regional economy of Davos profits from snow production that is provided by the mountain railway companies.
The relevance of artificial snow for the winter tourists in the Swiss Alps
Standardised interviews with tourists were made to analyse their criteria when choosing a holiday destination as well as to assess whether tourists perceive snow making as an adaptation strategy towards snow deficiency.
The interviews showed that the tourists’ choice of a holiday destination differs largely between the three study regions. Also the acceptance of snow making by tourists varies spatially and seasonally. Winter sport tourists in particular approve snow production as an adaptation strategy, while the majority of guests interviewed in the summer season have a negative attitude about artificial snow. However, there is a general trend towards higher acceptance of snow production compared with previous studies. Reliable snow conditions are important in the choice of a holiday destination but often not the determining factor.
Adaptationstrategies of the Stakeholder
We also interviewed local stakeholders from the mountain railway companies and the local communities about current and future adaptation strategies to climate change and subsequent less reliable snow conditions.
The interviews showed that the stakeholders are conscious about climate change and the resulting consequences. They consider snow making as the key measure to guarantee the ski season and to be able to compete in the skiing industry. However, it is also acknowledged that it will be crucial in the future, to concentrate on regional strength that distinguishes one region from others and to provide a diverse and high-quality range of activities in summer as well as in winter. Guaranteed snow-reliability alone is not enough to compete with other tourist destinations.
Ressource consumption for snowmaking
Snow making requires energy and water. We analyzed and quantified the use of energy and water for snow production and compared to the regional resource consumption and that of other activities in the tourism sector.
The annual energy consumption for snowmaking in our study areas is between 14’000 and 1.7 Mio. kWh. In Davos, snowmaking represents approximately 0.5% of the entire energy consumption in the respective community. Housing in the community of Davos, for instance, requires 32.5% of the entire energy budget.
The water consumption for snow making can be considerable and can comprise 20 – 35 % of the amount of the regional water consumption.
The ecological effects of artificial snow
Artificial snow production can have ecological impacts on vegetation, soil, animals and aquatic ecosystems. Impacts differ largely between regions, elevation etc. However, for impacts on vegetation it can be concluded that 1) artificial snow can protect vegetation and soil from mechanical disturbance, however, mechanical damage on ski pistes in general is high, 2) artificial snow can protect vegetation and soil from frost that occurs on ski runs with only natural snow, 3) the late snowmelt due to artificial snow can alter the vegetation composition, 4) the input of ions and water through artificial snow is not problematic where meadows and pastures are fertilized by agriculture anyway, but should be avoided on nutrient-poor vegetation such as fens and low-nutrient meadows and 5) species diversity and productivity are decreased on both types of ski pistes (with and without artificial snow).
Furthermore, our studies on vegetation and soil stability indicated that diverse vegetation, site-specific plant species and symbiotic fungi can enhance soil stability and reduce erosion after construction of snowing facilities and ground levelling of ski pistes.
Future changes in snow cover and future possibilities of snowmaking
When investing into snowing facilities, it needs to be considered whether snowmaking will be possible under the predicted temperature increase. We used regional climate scenarios to estimate future changes in snow cover and future possibilities of snowmaking.
Our results show that snow cover is not reliable anymore (at least 100 days with a snow depth ≥ 30 cm from 1 December through 15 April) at the lowest elevation (approx. 1’200 m a.s.l.) of some ski resorts. By 2050 snow reliability will be questionable even at intermediate elevation (approx. 1’500 m a.s.l.). Climate conditions for snowmaking may be insufficient at low elevation by 2030. An alternative to snow production at low elevation is more efficient transportation to high elevation areas of ski resorts.
The three investigated study areas Davos, Scuol and Braunwald differ not only in climate conditions and elevation but also in their tourism activities, the guest mix and their tourism strategies. Given the increasing economic competition and the changing climate, it will be crucial to use the specific regional strengths to provide high-quality summer and winter tourism activities.
Snow production at the high-altitude destinations Davos and Scuol represents a valuable adaptation strategy to enhance winter tourism. Each new snowmaking installation needs to be checked for its economic cost efficiency and potential ecological impacts. To optimize this process, all relevant stakeholder groups, i.e. mountain railway companies, communities, tourism organizations and nature conservation agencies need to collaborate as early as possible in the planning process.