Magazine article Geographical

Winter Tourism Feels the Heat: With Ski Seasons Becoming Shorter and Less Predictable and Glaciers in Retreat, It Seems Global Warming Has Already Begun to Affect Winter Tourism. Mark Lynas Reports on a Shrinking Industry

Magazine article Geographical

Winter Tourism Feels the Heat: With Ski Seasons Becoming Shorter and Less Predictable and Glaciers in Retreat, It Seems Global Warming Has Already Begun to Affect Winter Tourism. Mark Lynas Reports on a Shrinking Industry

Article excerpt

That's it, the season's over." The two ski attendants from the Glencoe Ski Centre were sitting in front of a computer in a nearby village, watching a five-day forecast download from the Internet. One of them shook his head glumly as the heavy rain-bearing depressions marched across the screen. "It's only March--we should have at least a month of winter to go yet."

Scotland's snow is in retreat. According to a recent Scottish Executive report, there have been 12 fewer days of snow cover per decade throughout the country since the late 1970s. And since the winter of 1987-88 there have been only three out of 13 winters with an above-average duration of snow cover. Those who venture into the mountains today are more likely to encounter mud and rain than frost and snow.

The impact on the Scottish snow-sports industry has been dramatic. Ski centres report fewer operational days for ski lifts and a general shortening of the season. Rather than accumulating over the course of the winter, large snowfalls tend to melt straight away everywhere but at the highest altitudes. All of the lower ski towns on the Cairngorms, for example, show long-term declines over the past 20 years.

Respondents to the questionnaire on which the report was based indicated that reductions in revenue were directly hitting the industry's future, that staff had frequently had to be paid off early and that ski-club memberships were in decline. In fact, Scottish skiing has now become so unreliable that some events have been moved to the Alps.

"You're seeing quite massive changes," says Dr John Harrison, the report's lead author. "Skiing activity has been severely curtailed. In Scotland, the long, cold winters where you could ski for weeks on end have gone. And they show no sign of coming back."

Last season was the worst in a decade. "It's been an absolute disaster," complains Bob Kinnaird, Cairngorm Mountain's chief executive, as April temperatures soared above 20[degrees]C. "I'm beginning to believe there really is something in global warming." All four other ski areas, including Glencoe, had stopped operating by the end of March.

And the future looks even worse: snow cover is predicted to disappear completely from low ground in south-western Scotland, while by the 2020s the highlands will have suffered a 20-40 per cent reduction. As the report outlines, this represents "a considerable threat to the industry [and will result] in the closure of some ski centres, with further impact on retailing and accommodation sectors, and employment opportunities".

Sport swaps

But that doesn't mean the end of Scottish highland tourism altogether. Ski centres have already begun to diversify out of snowsports into mountain biking, go-karting, walking and--in the case of the Glenshee Ski Centre--golf.

"If you take the snow off the hills," says Harrison, "more people are inclined to walk." This has an impact on the flora and fauna--especially fragile alpine plants that would normally be protected from trampling by a cover of snow. And it also has safety implications. "People see the hills are green so they go walking, but the temperature on the highest ground is still low enough for sudden snow flurries, and people easily become trapped or disoriented."

In fact, at elevations above 1,000 metres, the decline in snowfall is expected to be much slower, because the general warming is being accompanied by an increase in precipitation, which could lead to more prolonged snow on the highest ground. "That could be some compensation," admits Harrison. "lf you want to find snow, go higher." But going higher means building more intrusive infrastructure--such as ski towns, roads and furnicular railways--in places that are still wilderness, and higher ground is also steeper and less safe. Geographical constraints are the biggest limitation: there simply isn't a lot of ground higher than 1,000 metres. …

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