The climate crisis could cripple the ski holiday industry and cause water shortages as resorts increasingly turn to artificially-produced snow.
Current climate models predict that there will be more precipitation in winter in the coming decades, but that it will fall as rain instead of snow.
New snow guns may alleviate the situation to a certain extent, say the researchers, but will not resolve the issue completely and have an environmental cost.
Dr Erika Hiltbrunner from the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Basel says the weather will often not cold be enough over Christmas.
“Many people don’t realize that you also need certain weather conditions for snowmaking,” she said.
“It must not be too warm or too humid, otherwise there will not be enough evaporation cooling for the sprayed water to freeze in the air and come down as snow.”
“Warm air absorbs more moisture and so, as winters become warmer, it also gets increasingly difficult or impossible to produce snow technically.
“Here, the laws of physics set clear limits for snowmaking.”
The research team led by Dr Hiltbrunner analysed when snow is produced and with how much water at the Andermatt-Sedrun-Disentis ski resort in Switzerland.
They then applied the latest climate change scenarios (CH2018) in combination with the SkiSim 2.0 simulation software for projections of snow conditions with and without technical snowmaking.
The skiing will still go on, however, because technical snowmaking using snow guns at least enables resort operators to keep the higher ski runs open for 100 consecutive days – even up until the end of the century and with climate change continuing unabated.
But there is a high price to be paid for this. The researchers’ calculations show that water consumption for snowmaking will increase significantly, by about 80% for the resort as a whole. In an average winter toward the end of the century, consumption would thus amount to about 540 million litres of water, compared with 300 million litres today. And then there is the environmental cost of the energy snow guns require – it takes approximately 3.5 to 4.3 kWh of energy to produce one cubic metre of snow.
Today, some of the water used for snowmaking in the largest sub-area of Andermatt-Sedrun-Disentis comes from the Oberalpsee. A maximum of 200 million litres may be withdrawn annually for this purpose. If climate change continues unabated, this source of water will last until the middle of the century, the researchers claim.
“The Oberalpsee is also used to produce hydroelectric power,” says Dr Maria Vorkauf, lead author of the study.
“Here, we are likely to see a conflict between the water demands for the ski resort and those for hydropower generation.”
The results of their investigations were recently published in the International Journal of Biometeorology.