Ski resort issues

The problem:

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 00.56.38Mountainous environments are particularly vulnerable to climate change, pollution, development, leveling, overuse, overcrowding, infrastructure, and any physical modifications or exposure. Such causes greatly weaken and deteriorate ski slopes. The problem is that tourists come to ski resorts to practice their sport on the slopes and snow conditions must be satisfying to ensure tourist’s satisfaction and safety.

If the terrain is well maintain with a healthy and abundant vegetation cover, natural and artificial snow will accumulate faster and snow quality will remain constant and for much longer. In the contrary, if the terrain is damaged by compaction and a lack of vegetation the erosion process will worsen and create run off and landslides. Then the surface will be unstable and bare, causing snow to take longer to accumulate directly over the soil or rocks that are warmer. Then the snow will melt faster when temperatures go up as not only the melting will occur on the snow surface but also underneath as water will drain away in direct contact with the lower snow.

In the contrary, when vegetation cover is abundant or sufficient to create a layer thick enough to form a dry, ventilated and cold layer between the top soil and the snow level, then it will accumulate faster and the snowflakes will bound to form quality snow which will last much longer into the season, allowing for more snow days, increasing resort’s income.

We have worked together to find the most efficient and realistic long-term environmental solution for today’s growing ski slopes concerns due partly to artificial snow and poorly maintained slope surfaces.
Mountain sports pride themselves on being harmoniously in step with the rhythms of nature. But sometimes, nature falls out of step, failing to drop enough snow to meet the early demand for skiers and snowboarders. So technology steps in but for most skiers – who tend to be environmentalists themselves – this hits a little close to home.

Every year ski resorts constitute water reserves to ensure sufficient production of artificial snow making because global warming is fiercely felt for the past few years and most ski resort do not receive the amount of snow they once had regularly. As mountaintop temperatures rise and natural snow formation is reduced and / or delayed, ski resorts are increasingly turning to artificial snow production.

High altitude catchments are usually small in size and do not store or produce water in large quantities, especially in the winter. Groundwater is limited and small sub-basins naturally scarce water supplies can no longer keep pace with the growing demand for water.

Andreas FranssonThe increasing amounts of artificial snow resorts are forced to produced under warmer atmospheric conditions will be ever more difficult to make and will increasingly melt away. This vicious cycle will force snow producers to consume larger and larger amounts of water and more and more energy at increasingly higher production costs. To keep up with these increasing costs, lift prices are likely to increase beyond the present levels. Snow production will become a pitfall for investors in the ski industry. That means that monitoring and regulation as well as control of the expansion of artificial snow surfaces is needed in addition to integrated watershed management to avoid water conflicts.

Between 1962 and 2005, the average snow depth was reduced by as much as 40 % to resorts of under an altitude of 1,300 meters. When the flakes are lacking, snow guns run at full speed eventually drains mountains resources as water mainly comes from streams, groundwater, and from drinking water systems.

However, in winter streams have very low flow caused by freeze or drought and the water consumption for snowmaking increases drastically every year putting water supplies and ecosystems under stress in fragile areas where an influx of tourists is already stretching resources. The local effects are considerable, potentially causing conflicts with drinking water and loss of aquatic ecology.

The artificial snow production takes place during autumn and winter when natural water resources are limited, causing conflicts with drinking water. The snow production process loses an estimated 30% of the water consumed for good through evaporation, mainly due to a slowing down of the water cycle concentrating it at the surface alone, evapo-transpiration of plants, and sublimation of snow. The larger the amount of water transferred to the surface, the more likely it is to evaporate under the warmer and drier conditions of the future. These losses are permanent to an area as the water is transported into the atmosphere and, depending on atmospheric conditions, it may be carried into the next basin or into the next country.

Water loss through abstraction and evaporation in winter has immediate effects on the limited water volumes, especially on mountain streams whose discharge is reduced by between 40 and 70%, and which can easily run dry.

Since the temperature of artificial snow is closer to freezing than natural snow, which is generally at -4°C, it can frequently melt and refreeze during the day. The resulting molten water lying on impermeable snow cover forms another ideal source for evaporation. Direct loss of snow into the atmosphere by sublimation at subzero temperatures is also likely to increase under these conditions. It must not be forgotten that it is precisely these atmospherically unfavorable conditions that prevent snow from falling or persisting as a permanent cover in the first place.

It must be mentioned that there are changes in water routing caused by highly impermeable artificial snow surfaces that persist for roughly four weeks longer than the surrounding natural snow surfaces. At higher altitudes subject to rainfall, ski trails covered by artificial snow are more likely to transfer water over the surface than bare slopes. Also, there is a higher chance they will cause rapid and peaky discharge by artificially linking up runoff pathways. Furthermore, the laying of pipelines for water transport changes the hydrological pathways of subsurface flow as they are inserted in a down slope direction and thus allow the preferential and faster drainage of water.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 22.53.21Water that is used from the lakes and streams to blast on the mountain usually contains minerals and other chemical compounds. This enriched snow provides a nutrient deposit as the snow thaws in the spring. The nutrient deposit was actually a benefit of using artificial snow and helped to make up for the negative effects of the mechanical disturbances. However, the additional nutrients that are deposited by the nutrient rich snow when it melts do have a negative effect on endangered habitats that are poor in nutrients.

Mountains have a very complex hydrology system. The Alps see around 100 million tourists each year – and greatest artificial snow production, mountain streams may lose nearly all their winter discharge and virtually dry up.

Vegetation cover of functional groups is distinctly changed. The amount of herbs and small shrubs is reduced, increasing the amount of open soil on slopes. The physical conditions of the snow cover on ski slopes are much changed through grooming and addition of artificial snow. A change in species composition indicates that some plant species may profit of the changed winter environment, while others – especially indigenous – are suppressed.