Uncertain future for ski resorts in the Pyrenees due to climate change

by Lorraine Williamson
Pyrenees ski resorts

VIELHA – The snowy peaks of the Pyrenees have been attracting winter sports enthusiasts for decades. However, projections from scientists have indicated that the winter wonderland may not last forever. 

Snow thickness at altitudes between 1,800 and 2,200 meters – the altitude range of most ski resorts in the area – could be reduced by 50% by 2050. This is according to predictions from the Pyrenean Observatory of Climate Change (OPCC), a scientific entity of cooperation between Spain, France and Andorra. Now the highest levels still have an annual average of two feet of snow, while the lowest areas collect only four inches a year. 

The predicted decrease is based on an intermediate scenario of greenhouse gas emissions peaking around 2040 and then gradually declining. However, if emissions continue to rise, snow thickness could decrease by as much as 70%, with lower elevations suffering even greater losses. 

The reduction in snow depth will significantly affect the ski industry. With nearly 50 ski resorts in the Pyrenees, the region is an important contributor to the industry. A fall in snow levels can therefore have a devastating effect. As the snowfall subsides, ski resorts will struggle to keep their slopes open for winter sports activities. 

Southern slopes first 

Marc Lemus, a researcher at Andorra Recerca + Innovació and the University of Santiago de Compostela, says in El País that the snow reduction will be more pronounced on the southern slopes. Stations such as Port del Compte or Vall de Nuria – both in Catalonia – already live off one or two periods of heavy snowfall per year. Moreover: “when the temperature rises, the snow cover will start at higher levels. The ones that will be more resistant to these changes are the stations in the north of Andorra and those on the north side of the Pyrenees”. The Spanish ski resorts will be hit more than the French. 

The situation will continue to deteriorate 

Decreasing snowfall in the Pyrenees has been attributed to climate change. Experts have warned that the situation will continue to worsen as global warming intensifies. It will then rain more instead of snow, so less snow can accumulate on the mountain slopes and snow cannons have more difficulty maintaining the snow level. 

The snow season is also expected to start later and end earlier than ‘normal’. As a result, the amount of snow available for skiing activities is also declining further. Normally, the winter sports season in the Pyrenees starts at the beginning of December and ends at the end of March or the beginning of April. 

Related post: Ski season starts in Spain with relatively little snow 

Sometimes there is no snow in early December, but then resorts rely on artificial snow made with snow cannons to create a base for skiing activities. However, the snow cannons need specific weather conditions to produce snow. That’s why ski stations can’t rely fully on those guns to maintain their slopes. A decrease in snowfall thus poses a significant threat to the resorts’ ability to provide high-quality skiing experiences. 

Pyrenees very vulnerable to climate change 

Dominic Royé, a climatologist at the Foundation for Climate Research (FIC), warns that the Pyrenees are one of the most vulnerable areas to climate change. The warming of the Earth’s atmosphere is much higher in mountainous regions. This makes them more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The Pyrenees, like the Alps, are no exception. 

Damage goes beyond the ski industry 

The impact of declining snowfall in the Pyrenees is not limited to the ski industry. It also affects the region’s biodiversity and water supply. Snow and ice are vital components of the ecosystem, and a drop in their levels will greatly affect plant and animal life in the region. 

Another effect is that the melting snow in spring fills rivers and streams. Less snow could therefore lead to water shortages affecting agriculture, human consumption and wildlife. 

Related post: Dramatic loss of remaining glaciers in the Pyrenees, study shows 

Despite predictions, large investments in ski resorts 

In December it was announced that one of the largest ski areas in Europe would be created in the Pyrenees with the help of money from European funds. A new chairlift will connect the ski areas of Formigal and Astún connect. Earlier last year, €8 million was already allocated to connect the ski stations Candanchú and Astún. If this project can be realised, the Aragonese ski areas together would comprise almost 300 kilometres of slopes. An ambitious project in light of the dramatic reduction of snow that scientists predict for the coming decades. 

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