Jeff Piccard is a French former alpine skier who competed in several World Cups and World Championships in his youth. The brother of Franck Piccard, an Olympic skiing gold medallist, the 46-year-old lives in Les Saisies, a ski station about an hour from the 1992 Winter Olympic town of Albertville.
Next week, he says, could be the last hurrah of the ski season. “We are looking forward to a lot of snow,” he says. “It may be the last big snowfall. And yet it follows some heavy rainfall – and that is all too typical of the weather these days.”
Mr Piccard, who runs Le Chalet Mignod restaurant high on the slopes and gives paraskiing lessons, has spent most of his life in Les Saisies. Like many in the alpine winter sports sector, he fears the effects of climate change. Les Saisies has 192 kilometres (120 miles) of alpine ski slopes and 120 km (75 miles) of Nordic pistes, but this year, an alarming number were closed because the snow melted. Patches of grass, rock and dirt emerged on slopes that would typically have remained blanketed in white the entire season. Many lower altitude stations in Les Saisies that used to have snow throughout the season are now only partially open.
The effects are already eating into the sector. Resorts like Les Saisies are synonymous with stunning vistas and winter wonderland experiences, but as temperatures rise and snow cover melts, they are facing shorter and less predictable ski seasons.
“Of course, we are worried,” Mr Piccard says. “Our business model is based on winter sports. We fear that the season will be shorter. Before, it ran from the end of November to the beginning of May, and now it’s mid-December to mid-April, so we have lost around a month of activity.”
Over the years, Mr Piccard has seen the snow slowly retreat. “When my parents lived in Les Saisies, we had snow drifts of seven or eight metres,” Mr Piccard says. “Now these snow drifts are only every decade or so. And the problem is not just that it is slowly getting warmer, but that the temperatures are swinging much more. There is a lot more rain and a lot more variation.”
This season was particularly tough. Europe endured its second-warmest winter on record: between December and February, the average temperature was 1.4 degrees Celsius above the 1991-2020 average. France’s national weather agency, Météo France, said 2022 ended with some of the warmest weather the country has ever experienced at that time of year – capping a year that saw temperature records broken and rampant forest fires and drought conditions.
This year’s World Ski Championship, held across the Trois Vallées area in France, was almost cancelled as snow coverage was so thin. Recently, 200 professional skiers, including US star Mikaela Shiffrin, published an open letter to the International Ski Federation, warning that their sport is in danger.
The changes are visible from space. A study of high-resolution satellite data published last June showed how the snow-capped mountains are increasingly colonised by green plants and brown earth. Vegetated areas above the treeline in the Alps have increased by 77 per cent since 1984, according to a study published in Science. “The scale of the change has turned out to be absolutely massive in the Alps,” said University of Basel Professor Sabine Rumpf, the paper’s lead author.
The researchers identified the rise in vegetation as a phenomenon called “greening”, a consequence of climate change that was documented in the Arctic. They said the switch from white to green was creating a feedback loop that was increasing the pace of heating and snow melt.
Ski resorts like Les Saisies have attempted to mitigate the effects with snow cannons that blast out snow overnight to pad out the slopes – although this has environmental consequences too, requiring vast amounts of water and energy. They also use snowcats and snow groomers to maintain the pistes, while other resorts use helicopters and trucks to dump snow on barren slopes.
European ski resorts are trying to adapt by extending their summer activities. Les Saisies has been a pioneer in promoting hiking, motocross, cross-biking, and children’s activities. “We started that about a decade ago,” says Mr Piccard. “We are trying to renew ourselves as we know that in 15 or 20 years, the ski seasons will be very short. It’s about maintaining our place as a mountain holiday destination, and not just a ski resort.”