The long read: Hundreds of ski resorts now stand abandoned across the Alps. But some scientists believe they have found a way to keep snow on the ground and that it could help vulnerable communities all over the world
When the French entrepreneur Jacques Mouflier visited the remote Alpine village of Val dIsre in 1935, he saw the future before him. A miracle is going to happen, Mouflier told his young son, as he gestured towards the mountains encircling the village. Ski champions from every country will come to compete where were standing right now.
He was right. In 1948 Val dIsre produced Frances first Olympic ski champion, and ever since, professional athletes have flocked to the village, which sits 1,850 metres above sea level, to train and compete. They are joined by tens of thousands of amateurs. Last year the resort sold 1.3m ski days to tourists, and more Britons visit Val dIsre each year than any other ski resort in the world.
For a long time, the source of Val dIsres enduring attraction aside from its almost oppressively picturesque surroundings, five-star hotels and 300km of pistes, each one as groomed as a Surrey garden has been that it is, in the parlance of the skiing industry, snow certain. Year in and year out, the arrival of the first snowfall, in mid-November, was as reliable as a Swiss watch. In 1955, when the resort began hosting an annual ski competition called the Critrium de la Premire Neige (the competition of the first snow), its organisers boasted that Val dIsre was the only French resort able to guarantee snow throughout December.
Villagers claim to be able to predict the years coming snowfall by the berries on the localrowantrees. Plump clumps in summer promise deep snow in winter. For decades, the branches drooped under the berries weight. But in the mid-1980s, locals began to notice a change. The date of the first snowfall began to drift later. Patches of bare ground appeared on slopes that, in previous years, had been covered in an uninterrupted white drift. Some ski seasons would have an abundance of snow; others, a scarcity. More consistent was the retreat of the Pissaillas glacier, whose run-off water feeds the surrounding forests; each year it withdrew a little farther up the Pointe du Montet mountain, which dominates the jagged horizon. By 2014, snow was arriving so late to Val dIsre that, for the first time in its history, the Critrium de la Premire Neige was relocated, to a more snow-reliable resort in Sweden.
For reasons scientists dont fully understand, the Alps are warming faster than the global average. The 1.4C rise in the average global temperature since the end of the 19th century has translated into a 2C rise in the Alps. In the past hundred years, the number of hours that sunshine hits the mountains each year has increased by 20%. The heat and light cause snow to melt, or not to fall at all. In 2017 the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research recorded that less snow fell in the Alps during the winter months than in any year since 1874. In April a report by the European Geosciences Union showed that 90% of glacier volume in the Alps an essential source of drinking water, crop irrigation and ski runs could be lost by the end of this century.
For the Alpine ski industry, which hosts 35% of the worlds ski resorts across eight countries, and serves an estimated 120 million tourists each year, this is potentially an extinction-level event. Val dIsre is one of the mountain ranges highest resorts, so it will be one of the last to feel the full effects of the climate catastrophe. But farther down the mountains, the disappearance of snow has already begun to devastate the ski industry, as well as the communities that rely on it.
Since 1960, the average snow season has shortened by 38 days, while seasonal drift has pushed the coldest weather from December to the early months of the year, throwing the ski season out of sync with the lucrative Christmas holidays. In November 2017 the EU launched the Prosnow project, whereby scientists advise Alpine resorts on how to maintain the same season duration with 30% less snow. Such efforts have not been entirely successful. According to some reports, as many as 200 ski resorts now stand abandoned across the Alps, where bankrupt hotels have been left unoccupied, and forsaken ski lifts dangle in the wind.
The disaster encroaching on Val dIsre has been obvious to Olivier Simonin, the director of tourism at the resort, since the infamous 2006-7 season, when a scarcity of snow caused a 7% decline in revenues across Alpine resorts. This September, for the first time, the French ski industrys main union, Domaines Skiables de France, held an emergency meeting of directors from Frances most important resorts to discuss the existential challenges they face. Twenty-five directors attended the meeting, which was held in the valley of Chambry. The mood, according to Simonin, was sombre. This is now the main topic of conversation among us, said Simonin. Nobody wants to die.
Unlike the islanders of Kiribati, whose homes will be swallowed by the Pacific Ocean in the coming years, or the farmers of rural Bangladesh, whose crops fail whenever their fields are flooded by saltwater, the Alpine ski industry, which turns over billions of euros every year, is disproportionately well-equipped to fight for its survival. And resorts like Val dIsre have invested tens of millions of euros in the most straightforward solution imaginable: when the snow stops falling, its time to make your own.
You need four things to make snow, Pierre Mattis told me in September as we toured the control centre of the snow-making operation he runs in Val dIsre. Water, air, cold and talent. One morning in 1995, Mattis, who was then a 28-year-old ski-lift engineer, was told he was being redeployed to look after the resorts handful of snow machines. Four years later, he began building his snow-making factory, or atelier neige, installing a 70km network of pipes beneath the mountain that now, after years of expansion and improvement, can cover 65 sq km of slopes in artificial snow at the touch of a button. It is one of the most sophisticated snow-making operations in the world.
The first snow-making machines in Europe appeared in Italy in the early 1980s, just before the locals in Val dIsre began to notice the seasons shifting. As winters with unreliable snow became more common in the Alps, so did the machines. Most were based on a design by a Pennsylvanian man named Herman K Dupr, who in 1968 had fitted a water sprinkler to an air compressor system he bought at a scrapyard. Dupr pumped the air and water at high pressure through a lance-like nozzle to create a fine spray that, at sufficiently low temperatures, turned to snow before it hit the ground. The HKD snowmaking system, as Dupr named his invention, became the industry standard. The first one arrived in Val dIsre not long before the snow-scarce winter of 1986.
Warm winters had occurred before the mid-1980s, Robert Steiger, an economist and tourism researcher at the University of Innsbruck, told me, but at that time Alpine communities had not been so dependent on ski tourism. Today, 95% of Italian, 70% of Austrian, 65% of French and half of Swiss ski resorts are reliant on snow machines for their continued survival, according to estimates from Claus Dangel, CEO of Bchler, a snow-machine maker that supplies more than 200 resorts across the Alps.
It takes an awful lot of technology, water and energy to manufacture the amount of snow that might have naturally blanketed the Alps two or three generations ago. Mattiss control centre in Val dIsre is housed in a cavern chiselled into the mountainside, like the bunker of a Bond villain. It is large enough to house some 40 double-decker buses, and home to six 10ft tall pumps, water filters, and a phalanx of computer screens all maintained by Mattiss 12-member snow team.