The ski industry has long been plagued by fears about global warming, and never more so than in the winter of 2010-11 when already recession-hit resorts suffered one of the worst snow droughts on record. Come last winter, the pressure was on for the Alps to deliver – the last thing anyone needed was the warmest and driest autumn on record.
Three weeks before Christmas 2011, some resorts were still to count their first snowflakes but, as the industry teetered on the brink, the weather finally decided to play ball. It began with a light dusting, then on December 5 the first in a succession of powerful storms slammed into the northern side of the Alps. By the end of the month, Val d’Isère had clocked up 4m of snow, nearly twice the amount in the whole of the previous winter.
Italy and the Southern Alps missed most of the snow, but further north, blizzards continued to rage into the new year. With avalanche danger reaching critical levels, it became a logistical nightmare for tour operators. Many resorts, including Val d’Isère and Val Thorens in France and Zermatt in Switzerland, were temporarily cut off and, in the Austrian Tyrol, skiers were unable to get in or out of Ischgl for nearly a week.
February was quieter, but exceptionally cold at times, then in March the sun blazed and temperatures soared. Val d’Isère finished with 6.9m of snow, some 30 per cent above its long-term average, but short of the 9.1m record set in 1978-79. It was a similar story for Lech, where 9m would be impressive by most standards, but was unremarkable for this super-snowy corner of the Alps. Only Obertauern achieved a genuinely massive 12.2m.
Southern resorts were all below par. Although there was some reasonable piste skiing on offer, 1.9m of snow for Arabba (in the Dolomites) was only half what one might expect.
A pretty good season then, but not the best. In 2008-09 many southern resorts did break their all-time snow records and 2007-08 was also something of a vintage year, boasting one of the greatest season starts ever known. So much for global warming, one might be tempted to say. Anecdotally at least, when lean years are periodically interspersed with bumper ones, there seems little to support the notion that the ski industry is succumbing to climate change. Such variation in snowfall has always existed. Go back to the 1970s and a run of snow droughts preceded some of the greatest winters the Alps have ever known.
Nonetheless, however fickle the climate, underlying trends point to rising temperatures in the Alps as elsewhere. What effect this is having on precipitation is more controversial. Some predict that snowfall should increase at altitude but, if anything, the last decade has seen the opposite. All the top 10 snowiest resorts are down on their long-term snowfall averages, a trend seen in most other resorts, regardless of altitude. One should also ask, to what extent is piste management masking the effects of global warming? Such is the quality of snow-making and grooming these days, that pistes are often kept open against the odds; great for low-lying resorts in lean years, but is it blinding us to the reality?
Whatever the truth of the matter, you need a degree of luck to find great snow in the Alps. If not tied to the school holidays, you can take your pick. January and early February are best for last-minute bargains, but if the snow arrives early, then pre-Christmas can be a great, crowd-free, time to go. If peak dates are unavoidable, different tactics are needed. The February half-term gives you the best chance of good snow, but Christmas and New Year are riskier and it doesn’t always pay to go high: the big storms may not have hit yet. Spring is underrated and worth considering. By then, the snowpack is well established and, at altitude at least, good cover is pretty well guaranteed. The weather is warmer, days are longer and the atmosphere can be wonderfully convivial.
Fraser Wilkin is the founder of the wintersports meteorology website, www.weathertoski.co.uk
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