Where Has All The Snow Gone?
By Geoffrey Lean
17 December 2006
day may not fall until later this week, but spring already seems to
have come to the roof of Europe.
Holiday-makers turning up
in the Alps for their annual dose of winter sports are being met by
green meadows, not white pistes. Competitors in the skiing World Cup
used to be being swaddled in thermals and Lycra, are instead lounging
around in T-shirts as their races are cancelled for lack of snow.
Daisies have been poking
though the grass at Austria's St Anton resort. Azure Alpine gentians
are blossoming even 3,300ft up, while spring forsythia are giving the
valleys an unprecedented splash of colour. And over in the French Alps,
fruit trees are already coming into bud.
Right across Europe's highest
mountain chain, says the World Meteorological Organisation, only a third
as much snow as usual has fallen so far this winter. Temperatures are
up to three degrees centigrade higher than normal, and in some resorts
the weather is so warm that even artificial snowmaking machines will
Hotels throughout the Alps
are underbooked; the Italian hoteliers' association reckons that the
lack of snow has so far cost its members £400m this year. World
Cup races have already been cancelled or rescheduled in France's Val
d'Isere and Megève and Switzerland's St Moritz, and one was only
able to go ahead in Hochfilzen, in Austria, after local people trucked
in 15,000 cubic metres of snow from Grossglockner, the country's highest
peak, to create a thin white run through otherwise green pastures.
Local people and tourist
officials are doing their best to remain optimistic. "I am certainly
not getting nervous," says Wilma Himmelfreundpointer, the deputy
director of tourism in St Anton. And 81-year-old Madeleine Villard,
in Motte-d'Aveillans, France, adds: "The onions have more layers
of skin, which are also thicker, and that means it is going to get really
cold." Certainly, a fresh dusting of snow did sprinkle the mountains
But those wishing to consult
the authentic harbinger of Alpine spring will find little consolation.
Standing on the Promenade de la Treille in Geneva's old town, it is
neatly marked with a plaque declaring it to be the city's "official"
Every spring since 1818,
a special city official has watched the tree (and two of its predecessors)
to spot when it puts out its first bud, and solemnly record the date
on a special noticeboard in the town hall. It usually falls some time
in March, though it has at times crept forward into February. But this
year, for the first time ever, the tree burst into bloom in late October
- and is still sporting flowers and leaves. Winter appears, officially,
to have been cancelled.
Human oracles are no more
reassuring. Last week the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and
Development warned that the Alps are "particularly sensitive"
to global warming, and have recently been heating up three times as
fast as the world as a whole. It said there would be "even greater
changes in the coming decades, with less snow at low altitudes and receding
glaciers and melting permafrost higher up".
A two-year study, which the
organisation is due to bring out in February, will conclude that at
present 609 of the 666 medium to large Alpine ski resorts have adequate
snow cover for at least 100 days a year - but that these could drop
to just 200 if temperatures rise by four degrees centigrade. This is
something that, according to some experts, could happen by 2050, on
the worst-case scenario (see graphic above).
Germany would be the worst
affected, with just a one degree rise - which the experts say could
happen by 2020 - leading to a 60 per cent drop in resorts with reliable
snow. In fact, the Alps abound with signs that climate change is already
well under way. In the 15 years running up to the turn of the millennium,
they lost nearly a quarter of the area taken up by glaciers. And more
than another five per cent melted in the blistering summer of 2003 alone.
Average snow levels are half what they were 40 years ago.
As the ice that glues them
together has melted, huge masses of rock have started detaching themselves
from mountains like the Eiger, and whole cliff faces have disintegrated.
And the ever-canny Swiss banks have started refusing to lend to ski
resorts less than 4,500ft up in the mountains.
But it is not just the Alps
that are sweltering in this warmest of winters. Friday was the hottest
winter day ever recorded in Moscow at 8.6 degrees centigrade - as opposed
to the usual minus four degrees - and the temperature in the Russian
capital is expected to climb even higher over the next few days.
Jaguars have ventured out
of their warm lairs in Moscow zoo to enjoy the balmy weather, and bears
have refused to hibernate. Buds are sprouting on the trees and spring
flowers such as violets and coltsfoot are blossoming. The Russian state
weather centre says it is refusing to freeze "even beyond the Arctic
In Sweden, where bears are
also failing to turn in for the winter, the gingerbread houses that
families traditionally make for Christmas are collapsing as the damp,
warm weather melts the icing that is traditionally used to stick them
together. "The problem is the mild winter," says Aake Mattsson
of Anna's, the country's leading gingerbread wholesaler.
Normally frozen golf courses
are still playable in Scandinavia, butterflies have been seen on the
wing in Denmark, heather is flowering in Poland, pavement cafés
are doing a roaring trade in Rome, and people were still sunbathing
and swimming on Spanish beaches in November.
And in Britain, bathed in
warm southern and southwesterly winds, a bumper raspberry crop was harvested
in Northumberland at the end of November, blackbirds are hatching broods
in Sussex, and bunches of black grapes are gracing a wild vine in Essex.
Back in the Alps, resorts
are beginning to wonder how they will keep their 160 million skier-days
of tourist business a year in a warmer world. Some have built spas;
others are offering winter hiking packages. And some experts are beginning
to predict that one day the winter sport season could move to summer,
using roller skis.
© 2006 Independent News
and Media Limited
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