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Last Updated: Monday, 6 August 2007, 15:33 GMT 16:33 UK
The slippery slope of winter sports
Carmen de Jong
Carmen de Jong

The increasing popularity of winter sports is placing an ever increasing strain on fragile mountain ecosystems, says Carmen de Jong. In this week's Green Room, she highlights how tourism could be irreversibly changing the face of Alpine slopes around the world.

Ski lift in Switzerland (Getty Images)
Human pressure will increase on higher and more fragile zones that are ultimately limited by their natural topography
Although mountains are fragile ecosystems, they are rarely considered vulnerable to human pressure and climate change, since their remoteness and size give rise to the impression that their natural resources are ubiquitous and practically unlimited.

Only 150 years ago, these high altitude areas were considered too dangerous to live in. Now they have established a firm place in the regional and local economy.

Winter ski tourism, in particular, has enjoyed an avalanche-like success, practically having been unheard of in many mountain valleys 50 years ago.

Similar to the impressive development of dams and infrastructure in alpine valleys from the 1950s onwards, mountain tourism is progressing fast.

Just as coastal regions experience a huge influx of tourists during the summer months, ski resorts play host to those who enjoy a winter break.

Yet at the same time, mountain climate is changing globally, with a steep rise in temperature compared to surrounding lowlands.

There is also a great deal of uncertainty about precipitation levels, marked by the tendency towards warmer and drier winters and a decrease in snow depth over the past few decades.

Since wetlands are biodiversity hotspots and take many centuries to develop, such environmental losses can be irreversible

In future, it is likely that extreme events such as single, excessive snow falls surrounded by snow-free months during the winter will increase.

As permafrost, snow and glacier limits all retreat to higher and higher altitudes, natural mountain resources will become more and more confined.

In the hunt for recreation or renewable resources, human pressure will increase on higher and more fragile zones that are ultimately limited by their natural topography. In many cases, this upper limit has already been reached.

Water worries

Mountain ecosystems are fundamentally linked to high mountain hydrology, since their climate is close to the triple point of water (that is the threshold between the gaseous, solid and liquid state of water).

It is therefore important to respect the different resident times of water inherent to glaciers, permafrost, snowfields, high altitude wetlands, torrent discharge or local groundwater reservoirs. The growing season and the capacity to regenerate is usually quite limited at higher altitudes.

The melt of permafrost and glaciers will boost water supplies to dam reservoirs in the next few decades, but within about 50 years, we will experience the flip-side of the coin.

Mountain river (Image; EyeWire)
Increasing demand for water by ski resorts affects mountain river flows

From then on, the lack of discharges and the surplus in glacial sediments will significantly endanger the capacity of dam reservoirs and the durability of other water supplies.

This should be considered when planning future water infrastructure in mountains.

In the past, naturally limited surface and groundwater during the winter in high altitude sub-catchments was sufficient to supply the few local communities.

Nowadays, a veritable population explosion during the winter months is increasingly causing water conflicts.

It is not uncommon for alpine resorts to play host to more than 50,000 tourists at any one time. Yet winter is the most vulnerable time of the year, since it coincides with the lowest flows of the year as a result of frozen water and soils.

Even groundwater reservoirs are at risk of overexploitation since they cannot be replenished under these conditions.

At the same time, changing climatic conditions with decreased or less reliable snowfall have boosted the production of artificial snow on ski pistes, extending to altitudes below the permanent winter snow cover. This strikes a double whammy on the mountain regions' water supplies. The long-term effects are still unknown.

Similarly, the number of natural high altitude wetlands is limited. The conversion of these natural sanctuaries to deep reservoirs, capturing water for snow production has rapidly expanded to more-or-less all large ski resorts with no prior long-term environmental impact assessment.

Since wetlands are biodiversity hotspots and take many centuries to develop, such environmental losses can be irreversible.

To make matters worse, a comparison of alpine meteorological data over the last five years with long-term data looking back over the past 60 years shows that whereas January, March and August have become more rain intensive, all other seasons have become consistently drier.

With up to 30% decrease in rainfall for certain months, the total annual precipitation has decreased by 8% compared to the long term mean. The fall in annual rainfall has developed faster and more obviously during the last decade.

If these trends continue, water conflicts are likely in areas that are favoured retreats for tourists.

Balancing needs

A recent scientific study shows global mountain ranges that are important for winter ski tourism, such as the Alps, Rockies and Japanese mountains, contribute much of the water needed to their lowlands.

Farmer and herd of cows in the Alps (Image: AP)
Snow and ice melt from mountains are vital for farmers

Altering the amount of water that reaches these lowlands will have a considerable impact. Therefore, it is important to ascertain ecological residual discharge in mountain torrents.

This is also true for rivers at lower altitudes that are impacted by dams and whose minimal discharge was calculated according to climatic and discharge conditions typical for the 1960s.

One solution for the lower altitudes would be to release enough water from dams to sustain a sufficiently dense habitat for the reproduction of fauna and fish, and also enable water sports such as rafting.

Solutions for the higher altitudes would be to change the monopoly of winter tourism and to spread the enormous pressure on resources in winter more evenly over the whole year.

There is a chance that mountain tourism will increase with global warming since heat waves can be better endured with less energy consumption than in coastal zones.

This is even more true for the aging population that is very likely in the future to colonise the cooler, higher altitudes to escape the more polluted and overheated lowlands.

Thus, tourism will have to remain attractive all year round and increasingly accommodate the needs of aging populations.

Such measures will stimulate the all-year-round economy and avoid overdependence on highly fluctuating seasonal tourism numbers, as well as avoiding heavy investment into equipment that cannot be amortized under global warming scenarios.

Artificial snow should be curtailed in regions that are already experiencing water stress or that are likely to do so in future and should be treated as a regional water management issue.

In particular, the economical challenge should not be isolated from water management issues and all mountain development should be treated in an interdisciplinary context to avoid the development of unforeseen consequences.

Professor Carmen de Jong is scientific director of the Mountain Institute, University of Savoy, based in Bourget-du-Lac, France; she is also president of Cryosphere at the European Geosciences Union (EGU)

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Carmen de Jong? Is the increasing demand for winter sports threatening fragile mountain ecosystems? Should there be a limit on new developments? Or do the economic benefits for remote locations outweigh the environmental costs?

The words uttered by Carmen de Jong is correct and everyone on earth should respect her words. I love the Earth and like to enjoy it. But we do not have time to look at it's entity. That is to say, our contribution to curb the risk factors is too small to mention. This is unfortunate. Humayun, Bangladesh.
Humayun Kabir, Dhaka, Bangladesh

I don't think skiers are having much of an effect on climate, but rather suffering from the effects of climate change. What percentage of the worlds mountains are ski resorts? Can that small fraction have an effect on climate? I think not.
Tim Smalls, Nottingham.

No Steve! Ms de Jong is right. I love skiing as much as you do - and that is precisely why we should worry. A skier that doesn't respect the mountains ought to stick to inner-city dry slopes! Haven't you noticed the increase use of snow machines, the reduction in snowfall, the increase in people in resorts who use ski holidays as a fashion statement rather then a genuine desire to enjoy the mountains and the ever-increasing human pressure in mountain environments? No?! I am sure you'll find a dry ski slope near you! Because we love and enjoy the mountain we should respect and protect it from exploitation. And it starts by being conscious of our own impact and minimizing it.
James, Geneva, Switzerland

The problem is intensity. Ski resorts used to be few and used by few to ski on pistes. Now the whole mountain is climbed year round and skied and boarded in winter, and then walked over, golfed and mountain biked in summer. Spreading usage is not the answer. The piste skiers monopoly has long gone Dr de Jong which she should know living in that area. Limiting usage, in area and volume is the answer.
Steve Baseby, Bath, England

The mountains of europe have very fragile ecosystems. Plants and animals more commonly found north of the artic circle are likely to be lost due to climate change.Prior to climate change skiing and logging caused a significant amount of damage to mountain regions. I fear that as glaciers disapear dams may be built to replace them. Glaciers store huge amounts of water and they release that water onto low lands during hot, dry summers. Climate change will disturb mountainous regions far more than sports users have, winter sports enthusiasts are also being adversely effected due to the warming climate.
Neil Smith, Kyle of Lochalsh

I am at odds with much of what has been said here. Human activity anywhere ultimately effects the environment unless that activity works with and not against nature. It seems that what is at issue here is not the tourisim but the decrease in snow quantity year on year which, caused by an increase in global temperature is the real reason these eco systems are being put under pressure.
john, Sheffield

Could man-made snow be put to a higher use - to place it over glaciers would provide them with a reflective blanket, and stop them from shrinking. This is being done at Val d'Isère. Could it be put into practice over a larger scale to protect the glaciers from Global Warming? Do anyone have an answer to this?
Dr A Evans, Brussels, Belgium

I understand that many people who live in these remote villages rely on tourism as this is their main source of income but this should in no way jepordise the the irreversable effect it is having on the planet. We should be taking it upon ourselves to realise that through our selfishnes we are destroying the planet. We should be working together to preseve these beautiful landscapes not arguing about who is to blame. By doing this we might then be able to think of a realistic solution to a problem that is threatening the human race!
Becky, Warrington/England

Tom, please, open your eyes, ears and learn to read. Mountain wetlands would not be "used otherwise" because that is the whole point - the prevention of human interference with systems and processes that we do not understand yet are reliant upon. And I can assure you that a mountain wetland would be productive, however the product would not be directly measurable in paper or coins... which neatly leads on to another problem mentioned in the article, the pursuit of short term financial gain. How much of an economy do you think there will be when our environment (which, by default, as living and breathing organisms, we ultimately depend) has been damaged beyond recovery? May I also mention that, as you are an inhabitant of this planet, and probably entirely incapable of planning for or dealing with the effects of a changing climate, you would also be a beneficiary of reduced air traffic around London. Good luck to the worms.
Ed Cook, Salisbury England

On a tiny scale de Jong is right. On a large scale, recreational development tends to be self-limited by the amount of wealth that people can spend on frivolity. Growing ecological awareness has fostered stricter social controls on the uses of natural resources; but as wealth appears to be concentrating in the hands of relatively fewer people, it is mostly rich people who have ownership of (and access to) recreationally attractive places. The economic benefits are for "remote owners", not remote locations, and they do not justify any enviornmental costs.
Michael E. Maus, Lakeview, USA

No, I don't agree with Ms de Jong. I love skiing!
Steve, Bristol, UK

From my point of view as a ski instructor and environmental scientist, this is certainly a situation that is of some concern. And as for the comment about mountain wetlands being barren wastelands, I suggest the person that wrote that looks up the word barren in a dictionary.
Ben, France

Are you nuts? Do you have any idea how small a percent of the worlds mountain acearage is used by winter resorts. Those who do frequent winter resorts are usually fanatically conscience of the environment and work hard to have little impact. They are often the ones who bring attention to true environmental concerns where we should be engaging our concern. Carmen, this is probably your thesis or something, but let's not make a mountain out of this mole hill.
Bob Bodily, Utah, USA

Since the late 50s, I have spent most of my winter or summer holidays in the French Alps. I agree entirely with Carmen de Jong -she speaks gold, and with Rosanna from Philadelphia: I would just add that individual greed is a big culprit, too.
Bernard , Lyons, France

I don't think use of water for winter sports is as much of a problem as it's made out to be. Nothing wrong with enjoying snow while the knees hold out and I wish more people had a chance to do it. What is a problem is the build out of houses and shopping in mountain towns and exurbs. Wildlife in the mountains needing a place to live must feel like a hang glider pilot looking for a place to land; maybe they'll find it this year but it could be a shopping mall with cars next time they look. Cars and houses that add to global warming and which provide places for the wealthy to hide from the realities of the societies they helped build.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado USA

There is only a shortage of water because heavily subsidised farmers do not pay enough for the water. The Alps should be rezoned so that farming is reduced or the subsidies removed. We might want to continue to farm in the alps in areas such as Beaufort where the alpine environment adds value to the product or the product's brand but elsewhere what is the point? Ski infrastructure is only subsidised in a few examples and that is so that the resorts act as loss leaders for other sales to tourists. The ski resorts have dragged the residents of the Alps out of the Middle Ages and they are grateful for that. Lets face it only a very small elite ever enjoyed the mountains before the introduction of mass market skiing. French academics need a little less respect for farmers and maybe just maybe once in a while fulfil their obligation to infoming society by reading an economics text book.
Chung Yung, London

I agree entirely, even to the point of feeling that development should be banned entirely, and strict international laws created for the protection of all our mountains.
Laura Gould, Dandridge, Tennessee U.S.A.

Mountain wetlands! Who cares? It is the same argument as coastal mudflats around the Thames Estuary; environmental groups prevented London having an airport that it can be proud of (all for the benefit of some worms)! I ask you would mountain wetlands be used otherwise? No. Would they be productive in any other way? No. Barren wasteland should be used in whichever way people see fit, and it's about time environmentalists realised that the economy is also important.
Tom Thistlethwaite, Leyburn N Yorks

This is nothing new. During the course of my degree studies 12 years ago I read a considerable amount on just this subject.
Barbara, Plymouth

Yes, I agree with Professor de Jong. Visit the Alps or Cairngorm in summer to see what 'The Slopes' are like with no snow on them - barren rock and scree. The water problem is insoluble. de Jong's measures are short term solutions only - eventually the snow and ice will be gone and then the valleys will be dry in the summer.
Ben Dallimore, Isle of Luing, Argyll

yes i agree with him.water management in such areas deeded to be emphasizewith a level.we have to save our enviroment our survival will be question be a question mark.
somya, meerut(u.p) india

It seems everything I like will make me sick or poor or fat. To that I can now add that it will be bad for the planet. Great!
Don Hughes, Basingstoke, UK

I am not a scientist nor I'm I an expert on any aspect or nature or science. However, I am a human being capable of looking at the environment and seeing clearly its destruction from the inner city to the Alpines. I am afraid that it is too late. Corporate greed will be the end of mankind and for those of us who care we lack the economic, and political power. Most of all we lack the courage to change things. If every American that cares about the environment boycotted, didn't go to work a few days and stormed Washington D,C with our demands we would have change.We are the most terrified people in the world. I am ashamed to be American. The price of freedom is too high clearly it demands that we sell our very souls.
Rosanna Vinales, Philadelphia PA

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