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Climate change and winter sports

When are the snows of next year?

Munich, 01/10/2014

Christmas in clover, Easter snowed over? Geographer Jürgen Schmude’s studies on the impact of climate change on winter sports suggest that, in future, optimal skiing conditions will occur less often, and later in the season.

 (Photo: Daniel Koell / Fotolia.com)
Photo: Daniel Koell / Fotolia.com

You are assessing the future impact of climate change on tourism. Is the process already having an effect on winter tourism?
Jürgen Schmude: If we consider the past 30 years as a whole, the answer is yes. In our studies we model various climate scenarios and then ask what happens over a particular timespan. There is no point in looking at a single year. A remark like “So much for global warming - last winter was really cold” is just as silly as saying “We’ve had no snow this year - that shows the climate is changing.”

In order to model the future of ski resorts in the context of global climate change, you have introduced a new parameter – the optimal skiing day. What factors make for a good skiing day?
I should perhaps first explain why we chose to define an optimal skiing day. In the past people have used the so-called “100-day rule”. This asserts that a ski resort can be economically viable if skiing is possible on at least 100 days in seven out of every ten winters. When we began to model the effects of future climate change, we talked to people who run ski resorts and cable-cars, to hotel managers, and to representatives of agencies involved in marketing tourism in Bavaria. – And they told us that, as far as they are concerned, the important question is not how many skiing days there are, but how many good skiing days there are, days when business is booming.

The conditions that define an optimal skiing day include the following: no precipitation, at least 5 hours of sunshine, a perceived temperature of between -5 and +5 degrees, with light to moderate winds. - And then there is the psychological aspect: The whole area must be covered with snow: the runs and trails should not show up as white tracks in an otherwise green landscape. The optimal skiing day is therefore a parameter that takes account of a broad selection of variables, and allows us to make much precise and regionally differentiated estimates of whether or not a resort is economically viable than would be possible with the 100-day rule.

And how do you expect the optimal skiing day to change in the future?
For individual skiing regions we have estimated how many optimal skiing days are likely to occur during the winter season in the coming decades, and how they are distributed in time. We used six different climate models, and all of them give essentially similar results. First, the total number of optimal skiing days is predicted to decrease – especially on the lower slopes; resorts located at higher altitudes are in a better position, as a rule. Secondly, the timing of the season will shift. There will be less snowfall overall and, in particular, more rain than snow is likely in December. At present, the number of optimal skiing days reaches its maximum in December and January. But in the 2020s and 2030s, this peak will move closer to Easter. We refer to this effect as the Christmas-Easter shift. The white Christmas will then be a thing of the past, and optimal conditions are more likely to occur in March and April.

How is this shift in the phase of the seasons likely to affect seasonal tourism?
It’s not hard to imagine how important that information is for the tourism industry, because it will cause a change of paradigm. It simply won’t be possible to use the White Christmas idea as a marketing tag. Instead, the advertising experts will have to persuade people to take a skiing holiday around Easter. But we know that social behavior is strongly influenced by our biological rhythms, and in April we are getting ready for summer, and few people are likely to be thinking of snow and skiing. We will have to wait and see whether tourists will then converge on those regions in which skiing is still possible at the traditional time of the year, i.e. at Christmas or Carnival time, or whether they will adapt to the seasonal shift and alter their patterns of activity.

Presumably some ski resorts stand to gain from climate change, while others suffer the pain?
That’s right. We assume that less popular, lower-lying areas, which do not have the financial resources to make the large investments required to install snow-making facilities to compensate for the lack of the real thing, will be forced out of the market altogether. Unfortunately, that forecast applies to many of the skiing areas in Germany, while resorts at higher altitudes, such as Silvretta Nova in Austria or many of the Swiss resorts, stand to benefit from the change, simply because they are 2500 meters up.

Many ski resorts are investing in snow-blowers to compensate for lack of the real thing. Do you believe this will work?
That depends on one’s planning horizon. We were asked to advise locations such as Sudelfeld near Bayerisch Zell, where they were wondering whether they should invest in modernizing skilifts and enlarging their snow-making facilities. Our models suggested that new investment would keep the industry there going for another 15 years. Further investment in maintaining infrastructure for winter sports beyond that date would however be futile. So a new model for attracting tourism to the area must be developed over the coming 15 years.

Critics argue that large-scale investment in areas on the lower reaches of the Alps has already become pointless, and they invoke the environmental damage associated with snow-blowers. Surely now is the time to start preparing for new forms of tourism?

That’s not something that can be done quickly. Any changeover from one segment of the tourist market to a very different one will take a long time - it may require building up a new infrastructure from scratch. And many people in the tourism industry simply lack the imagination to think of alternatives. The one that immediately occurs to everyone is the wellness sector, and all they can come up with for the summer is golf. But resorts with that combination are unlikely to become popular destinations.

What other alternatives are there?
There are no easy answers. A whole range of developments is underway which will determine what our society and its leisure activities will look like in 20 to 30 years’ time. In light of the demographic situation, it might be a good idea to concentrate on an older clientele, but not every skiing resort can cater for this sector of the market. Everything depends on the regional and local circumstances.

In Bavaria in particular, the chances are that climate change will lead to an extension of the tourism season generally. The expected seasonal shift should bring warmer weather in the autumn hiking season, and hiking is undergoing a huge renaissance in Germany at the moment.

Do winter sports have any future in the Bavarian Alps?
I would certainly say that winter sports have a future, but I am not so sure they have one in the Bavarian Alps. If we take the perspective of 2030/40/50, my guess would be that we will still have one or two skiing regions in Germany by 2050. But, one must remember that Austria and Switzerland are within easy reach, so that by then winter sports in Germany will be largely a dead letter.

Interview: göd

Professor Jürgen Schmude holds the Chair of Economic Geography and Tourism Research at LMU. His research interests include the effects of climate change and political unrest on the tourism industry.

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