- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 12, 2006

BELALP and VERBIER, Switzerland

Over the centuries, Swiss mountain communities such as these have proven resourceful in adapting to natural adversities, and in recent decades, they have turned the Alpine beauty into a cash cow by promoting winter sports.

However, the fast pace of modern life is sending worrying signals in the form of dramatic changes in temperature and climatic conditions in the Alps that threaten the annual multimillion-dollar winter sports and tourism industry.

Fearing the worst, some Swiss policy-makers and business leaders are urging mountain communities to hedge against this risk by diversifying their economic activity into sports and ventures that are less dependent on snow.

One early warning sign that has the normally calm and reserved Swiss — such as Hanspeter Holzhauser, a Zurich-based geographer — on edge are the changes being recorded at the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn World Heritage site.

Alps are melting

This majestic region is dominated by roughly 150 square miles of year-round ice and snow.

Mr. Holzhauser, who has spent the last quarter-century monitoring and measuring the Aletsch glacier — Europe’s largest, with a length of more than 14 miles and a surface area covering 31 square miles — says that since the glacier reached its maximum length from 1859 to 1860, the tongue of the glacier — its downhill extremity — has receded by more than 2 miles, more than 70 feet per year.

He said the glacier’s tongue is approaching its minimum recorded length.

The geographer says that because glaciers are slow to reflect long-term climate fluctuations, the tongue would have to be hundreds of yards shorter than it is to reflect last year’s temperatures, he said.

Back to 1250 B.C.

Mr. Holzhauser fears that in view of global warming, “It is highly probable that in the near future — say, around 2050 — the glacier may shrink to its smallest size since the late Bronze Age, or even less.”

From 1250 B.C. to 1050 B.C., the Aletsch glacier was at least 1,000 yards shorter than it is today, he said.

Bruno Messerli of the Geography Institute at the University of Bern reckons that some of the driving forces behind the environmental changes detected in the Alps reflect the profound increase in economic activity worldwide.

According to academic studies, from 1890 to 1990, the world’s human population quadrupled, the world economy increased 14-fold, industrial output rose by 40 times, and energy use grew 13-fold, he said.

In that period, fresh-water use increased ninefold, the amount of land irrigated rose by five times, the cattle population increased fourfold, carbon-dioxide emissions increased 17-fold and sulfuric-oxide emissions went up 13-fold, Mr. Messerli said.

‘Ski security’ threatened

The warmer temperatures also are posing a problem in terms of “ski security” in the Alps, which translates to having 100 uninterrupted days with a minimum 12-inch snow cover for winter sports.

Mr. Messerli said that with the current warmer temperatures, about 70 days of sufficient snow cover can be guaranteed. A lot depends on the altitude, he noted.

“If it’s below 1,500 meters [roughly 5,000 feet], it becomes difficult for several stations to ensure ski security. They have to go higher and higher to achieve this.

“But this then poses an ecological problem as they go to 2,000 meters [nearly 6,600 feet] and the upper tree line, which is a sensitive zone where skiing destroys vegetation.”

The increase in temperatures poses a real challenge and a commercial threat to ski and cable-car operators who have invested large sums of money over the years building state-of-the-art facilities at Verbier, Zermatt and other resorts.

For example, the Verbier runs can handle 4,500 skiers per hour, with the support infrastructure costing tens of millions to dollars to construct and to maintain.

Summer tourism eyed

A study by the Institute of Economics and Tourism in Sierre said that as a result of warmer weather, “in the medium term, only 60 percent of resorts will be able to count on sufficient snow.” It noted that currently, 89 percent of cable-car sales in the canton of Valais are made in the winter season and 11 percent in summer.

“We should take summer tourism more seriously again,” Mr. Messerli said in an interview. He conceded that at present, the 100-day period from Christmas to Easter is when operators look to make all their profit for the year.

But this year, many parts of the Alps are at Level 4, which means a high probability of avalanches, which have killed at least 86 visitors this winter.

To limit the damage, some glaciers such as the Tortin ice field atop the Verbier ski resort were covered by nearly 30,000 square feet of plastic sheeting from June through September to limit melting, said Eric Balet, director general of Televerbier.

Temporary solutions

The slopes at Verbier are ranked among the world’s top 10, and its Quatre Vallees boast 255 miles of runs. If there is a shortage of snow, the resort fires “snow cannons” at the peaks to guarantee access to skiers.

Snow cannons make snow by extruding water droplets through tiny valves under high pressure. The air has to be very cold and dry for best results. With high humidity, the droplets may form raindrops rather than snow.

Mr. Messerli reckons that recent efforts to cover glaciers are at best “temporary measures to postpone the melting process. I don’t believe it’s a lasting solution,” he said.

Increasingly, the “apple of discord” in the Swiss Alps is between resort operators who want to construct ski lifts higher and higher to maintain the necessary “ski security,” and specialists such as Mr. Messerli who want to keep some of the landscape free from development so people can relax and enjoy nature through other pursuits.

At present, the revenue ratio between winter and summer tourism in the Alps is roughly 70-to-30, and in some years, the winter share can be even higher.

Altering expectations

The challenge for local operators and Swiss tourism authorities is how to change the mentality, which has a strong preference for winter sport over activities such as hiking, walking, fine dining and other cultural pursuits.

Verbier-Bagnes tourism says summer activities — from hiking to mountain biking, golf at mile-high altitudes, paragliding, the annual 17-day classical music festival and the “Grand Concours Hippique” equine show jumping — are becoming major events.

Michel Ferla, deputy director of Switzerland Tourism, says projects are under way that focus on nature-sustainable tourism and concentrate on the use of local products.

Moreover, Rafael Matos-Wasem, a researcher at Haute Ecole Valaisanne, says the fresh mountain air factor has been greatly underexploited but is still a major attraction for many.

Clean air is a plus

Pure air is one of the key selling points of the region — in addition to the mountains and nature — especially in the emerging tourist markets in countries such as China.

Mr. Matos?Wasem points out that in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century, breathing fresh air was the driving force that spurred the growth of sanatoriums in the Swiss Alps and other locations, to treat tuberculosis patients, until the invention of streptomycin put the institutions in economic hardship.

Pure alpine air, nevertheless, is still used as a major selling point by many hotels, clinics and medical institutions and some private schools, the researcher said.

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