Climate change and the ski industry

Climate change and sky industry (1)
Photo courtesy of Mountain Wilderness Germany

July came with good news: the referendum in St. Leonhard im Pitztal (Tyrol, Austria) put an end to the planned Pitztal-Ötztal expansion, stretching from Mittelberg in Pitztal over Griestal up to the Linker Fernerkogel, a pristine mountain with three glaciers.

The planned megaproject Pitztal-Ötztal, “Europe’s largest contiguous glacier ski resort” as it was called, was meant to connect the two areas. The construction would dramatically change the natural landscape, some of it would have to happen directly on glacier terrain. And considering that only seven percent of Austria‘s national territory are still in a natural state and free from technical infrastructure, the project would have had a major impact on the landscape.

A similar project in the Western Alps is causing much controversy: the cableway connection between the Cervino-Matterhorn and Monte Rosa ski areas, i.e. between the Colle delle Cime Bianche – one of the few remaining pristine areas in Italy’s Western Alps – and Frachey. This project is meant to connect two countries, namely Italy and Switzerland, three regions (Valle d’Aosta, Piedmont and Valais), five valleys (Valtournenche, Val d’Ayas, Gressoney Valley, Alagna Valley and Zermatt Valley) and five districts (Cervinia-Valtournenche, Zermatt, Champoluc, Gressoney, Alagna).

“Connecting Nature, Sharing Beauty” is the slogan chosen for the project, worth 66 million euro, by the cableway operator of the ski resort, Monterosa SpA. The keyword of the project is “sustainability”, in an attempt to greenwash what would alter an area falling within the Natura 2000 SPA-SAC site ‘Ambienti glaciali del gruppo del Monte Rosa’ (code IT1204220), thus protected under the EU Habitats Directive. Although the case went all the way to the European Parliament, the public company Monterosa Spa – with the approval of the government of the Aosta Valley region – has commissioned preliminary feasibility studies for the facilities.

Now you may have read in the press that four races, the first “cross-border” ones (Switzerland and Italy) of the Alpine Skiing World Cup that should have taken place on the track of the “Grande Becca” along a path of almost 4 km, starting at more than 3,700 meters above sea level and arriving at the Cime Bianche lakes (yes, the same Cime Bianche of the above project), at 2,835 meters above sea level have just been cancelled in Zermatt-Cervinia. They were called off due to heavy rainfall at altitudes above 3,000 meters as well as dangerously soft snow on the lower section of the course, and – as the president of the organizing committee put it: “Nature must be respected and accepted”.

Climate change and sky industry (2)
Last section of the racetrack

The cancellation of all downhill races in Zermatt-Cervinia, and even before, the decision to organize them there and between October and November, is part of a general reasoning and debates on how the Ski World Cup can and should be adapted to a changing climatic context. French skier Johan Clarey (Olympic silver medallist), referring to the races, spoke of a “senseless event and against all environmental logic” as the races “require enormous resources, from the use of helicopters to the crevasses to be closed”.

Given the severe drought conditions (almost 2/3 of Europe were hit by drought this year) and energy crisis, with soaring prices, we are experiencing, along with Alpine glaciers recording worst melt rates this year (6% in Switzerland according to SCNAT), shouldn’t we really rethink mountain tourism from a truly sustainable perspective? Let us not forget the United Nations have proclaimed 2022 as the Year of Sustainable Mountain Tourism.