Alpine towns find no business in snow business as world warms up

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 July, 2007, 12:00am

Muddy slopes, slushy peaks, unused lifts - at least one town in the French Alps is living out the nightmare of many a ski resort in a century scientists say is doomed to keep getting warmer.

The city council of Abondance - its name a cruel reminder of the generous snowfall it once enjoyed - voted last month to close the ski station that has been its economic mainstay for more than 40 years. The reason: not enough snow.

At 930 metres, the station between Mont Blanc and Lake Geneva is in the altitude range climate scientists say has seen the most dramatic drop in snowfall in recent generations.

The Alps, which pull in about 70 million tourists every year primarily for winter sports, are 'particularly sensitive' to climate change, according to a study last winter by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

It calls climate change a serious threat to Alpine ski resorts and regional economies. The most recent World Cup ski circuit was badly hit by lack of snow, with several Alpine races called off.

In Switzerland, melting permafrost has forced several companies to take steps to ensure their stations don't fall off mountains. And last week, a court in Lyons put the Transmontagne company, which operates mid-altitude resorts in France, Switzerland, Italy and Slovenia, under bankruptcy protection. Warming weather is seen as a key reason for its financial woes.

Abondance's troubles are alarming nearby towns and homeowners fear a crash in housing prices. Neighbouring La Chappelle-d'Abondance is considering changing its name to dissociate itself from the grim news.

Abondance mayor Serge Cettour-Meunier fears the closure of his station is the start of a troubling trend. 'Skiing is again becoming a sport for the rich,' he said, since only elite high-altitude resorts will have sufficient snowfall.

The Euro2.2 million (HK$23.6 million) annual economic output of his town and its 1,300 residents depends on winter sports. Last year, the lifts suffered a loss of Euro640,000.

Gerald Giraud, of Meteo France's Snow Study Centre in Grenoble, said altitudes of 900 to 1,500 metres were where global warming would pose the greatest problems.

Even taking into account irregular weather cycles, snowfall levels fell 64cm on average between 1960 and 2007 across the French Alps, he said. The centre noted a rise in average temperature of 1.5 to 3 degrees Celsius over the Alpine ranges since the early 1980s.

The OECD report said warming in the Alps in recent years had been three times the global average. The report studied only the Alps, but noted that its implications extended 'to other mountain systems which may face similar ... challenges, for example in North America, Australia and New Zealand'.

Skiers who once frequented Abondance are likely to head to larger, higher stations elsewhere in the Alps. But even some large, high stations in Switzerland have resorted to artificial snow in recent years.

For smaller stations such as Abondance, snow-sprayers are not a viable option since they require a minimal snow cover, and the high temperatures quickly melt snow.

Longer term, warming in the Alps could provide a boost to places off the beaten track, such as the mountains above Sochi, the Russian city on the Black Sea that is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Investors are not ready to write off Alpine ski resorts yet, noting how unpredictable weather-dependent investments are. 'We remain calm, one shouldn't overstate the phenomenon,' said Georges Gay-Lancernin of Credit Agricole de Haute Savoie.

Nevertheless, small stations are having increasing difficulty finding investors. Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse, at 900 metres, sought public funding to upgrade one of its lifts. The improved lift, ready for the 2006-2007 season, didn't budge all winter because there was not enough snow.

In Abondance, where snow fell only 20 days last year, town officials have been seeking private buyers for the station for several years. Transmontagne and Remy Loisirs expressed interest, but never followed through, the mayor said.

The regional council of the Haute Savoie region refused the mayor's request for aid, deeming the station no longer profitable.

'The mayor made a courageous, realistic and calm decision,' said retired dairy farmer Andre Gagneux.

But restaurant owner Marie-Jane Teninge, 61, said: 'I am sceptical about global warming. It's just a matter of cycles.'

Jean-Charles Simiand, president of the French national union for ski lifts and cable cars, noted that the lifts were used for hikers and mountain bikers in summer, but that this accounted for just 3 per cent of their revenues.

'The mid-altitude stations must adapt,' he said. 'Diversification of the economy is possible, but so far no one has found an activity that can substitute for skiing.'