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Can there ever be an environmental case for the mass-production of artificial snow?

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Capricious alpine conditions have a habit of stymieing the ambitions of even the highest ski resorts in Austria.

Increased uncertainty that the country’s leviathan winter sports industry can place sufficient faith in the natural conditions so vital to its existence has led in recent times to an upsurge in resorts installing an artificial snow-making capability.

If summer visitors to the Tirol or higher reaches of Salzburgerland have ever wondered what the purpose is of the many man-made lagoons found at altitude, they need look no further than the time of year generally regarded as Austria’s peak tourist season: winter. These contrived ‘lakes’ act as reservoirs to aid the process of artificial snow-making – a concept viewed by many environmentalists as gratuitous use of a natural resource, that, despite seen as plentiful in the Alps is not being used in a sustainable or responsible manner.

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Indeed, the disproportionate amount of water needed to create artificial snow on an ever-growing roster of pistes only serves to highlight the folly of relying on something so unpredictable as the weather. Weather systems known as blocking highs can for weeks influence events in the Alps and whilst these herald a period of little or no snow, temperatures can usually be sufficiently low for ersatz snow to be produced by whole battalions of snow cannons.

Where a serious problem does though arise is when clear weather is influenced by air flows from the south – in effect the Mediterranean and North Africa – which often include the Foehn wind – a ski resorts worst enemy. Although in such circumstances a succession of bluebird mornings greet the winter sports enthusiast no natural snow can fall – nor can its artificial counterpart be produced. The meteorological gods not only deprive ski areas of its white bounty but also bestow resorts with beautiful weather too mild to produce its own, inferior version. Justice, perhaps, for the environment but these prolonged conditions can spell disaster for areas that have heavily invested in cableway infrastructure and renovated hotels, some of which often close during the summer ‘off season’.

Milder winters leave Austria in something of a cleft stick. How can regions who actively encourage exponential growth of its ski resorts seek to strike an appropriate balance with a fragile environment so pivotal to its economic health? In a sector that in many areas eclipses all other wealth creation industries where is the line drawn when deciding enough is enough, that the saturation point has now been reached(or long since been passed)? Can there still be an environmental justification for resorts situated at lower altitudes to predicate their very existence on a winter sports economy that will in many cases rely solely on artificial snow?

Austria’s handful of glacier resorts offer virtually uninterrupted year round skiing, but should the country’s lower resorts continue to suffer from unreliable snow cover will the likes of the Hintertux and Stubai glaciers bear an untenable brunt and denudation of their unique landscapes – from an inevitable increase in patrons seeking more dependable conditions only found at 3000+ m altitudes?

 

Charles Bowman

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