Swiss ski resorts aim for a snow-sure future
Please note: The article does not constitute advice or a recommendation.
As a follow-up to our recent article – Swiss ski properties scale new summits – we take a broader look at the sustainability challenges facing Europe’s most famous ski resorts.
Switzerland may have some of the most stunning ski resorts in the world, but the undeniable reality is that climate change is becoming a major threat to these winter wonderland escapes. A warmer climate brings receding snow lines and shorter ski seasons.
Recent data points to 2022 being the worst melt year on record for Swiss glaciers – losing 6% of their remaining volume1. The Alps were also not spared during Europe’s record summer of heat this year. The idyllic Alpine retreat of Zermatt, nestled in the foothills of the mighty Matterhorn, recorded daily July temperatures in excess of 30°C despite being 1,620 metres above sea level. It forced the year-round ski resort – which boasts of the highest runs in Europe – to suspend summer skiing for the first time in its history2.
And it’s the scale of change that’s surprising many, forcing Swiss ski resorts to get creative in the battle against global warming – in a bid to future-proof pistes, make resorts more eco-friendly and skiing sustainable.
Resilience of ski resorts
“People are becoming much more aware of what resorts are doing in terms of ensuring there is going to be snow in the future, especially if they are looking to buy property there,” says Alex Koch de Gooreynd, a Partner at Knight Frank, who focuses on Switzerland’s prime property market.
“Not only do they want to make sure their investment is going to be secure – and their property has a re-sale value – but we’re also having lots more conversations about how to make the property they are buying more energy efficient.”
For many decades now, low-lying resorts especially have been heavily reliant on an army of snow cannons blasting artificial snow on to pistes to keep trails open – with 53% of all runs in Switzerland now using artificial snow3. It’s a figure that’s likely to rise, too, with resorts starting the new ski season from a much lower snow base.
A more recent invention is snow farming, where resorts preserve some of last season’s snow either under huge tarpaulin sheets or by pushing it higher up the mountain - where it has more chance of surviving the summer months – before being redistributed again for the next influx of skiers. Davos pioneered the practice over a decade ago for its cross-country ski trails, using sawdust to bury the snow, in the hope that 70%-80% survives – enabling routes to be open again by early November4.
These practices appear to be working. Despite there being 38 fewer days of natural snow in the Swiss Alps compared to the 1970s, on-piste snow depths have remained constant, according to Ski Club data5. The future may well be long-flowing groomed runs sat next to grassy pastures with a light dusting of snow, especially at lower elevations.
Although the resorts themselves are proving as popular as ever, despite the COVID-19 hiatus, as we head into the 2022/23 ski season.
“We’re continuing to see strong demand for properties across the Swiss Alps,” says Stuart Butler, from Barclays Private Bank. “But it’s the resorts that get to grips with the challenges of climate change that will potentially prove some of the most attractive going forwards.”
Despite their hedonistic and outdoor appeal, ski resorts are often net contributors to environmental issues. From the water-hungry snow-making machines, to energy-intensive chairlifts and the expansive ski runs where trees are often removed and wildlife displaced to clear routes for skiers. And for skiers themselves there’s a visitor’s carbon footprint to consider, whether that’s air travel, transfers to the resort, lodgings or any leisure facilities used.
It’s why many Swiss resorts are committed to becoming more eco-friendly, with a raft of green initiatives planned or already in place.
One such resort is Verbier, renowned for its breath-taking slopes, spectacular scenery and legendary après ski.
For a start, all of its electricity is generated by a hydropower plant higher up the valley, while sustainability is now central to all new improvements to the ski area and lift systems6. The success of the Verbier Express, a direct train link to Geneva, as well as the recent addition of the final leg up the mountain – the Châble-Verbier cable car – on to the public transport network7 is also encouraging many more visitors to leave their gas-guzzling cars at home.
“Verbier is widely known as one of the best ski resorts in the world, so if you’re the best – why not make it the greenest too?” says Michael Mathres, a climate veteran who recently set up the Verbier Summit8, an annual festival aimed at tackling sustainability issues in Verbier and beyond.
“Verbier does well, but everyone can always do better.” There are plans afoot for the resort to go further: from recycling initiatives to removing waste from the mountain, as well as ensuring chalets and lodgings become even more environmentally friendly.
Mathres, who now lives year-round in Verbier, has observed some subtle changes to the ski runs of the Four Valleys, Switzerland’s biggest ski area, of which Verbier is the main resort.
“The Tortin glacier at the top of Mont Fort – Verbier’s highest peak – has been in retreat for many years, but this year’s extreme melting could cause issues for skiers,” he warns. “The top section of the mountain which you can ski – a black run – will become even more technical because of the ice loss, making it steeper, and it’s going to be tricky to navigate now for all but the most advanced skiers. If there’s more significant glacier loss, even the pros may find it hard to get down from the top.”
But, as even Mathres admits, the warmer weather is not all bad news for Verbier. During the summer months, the resort reorients itself around hiking, mountain bike-riding, nature watching and sightseeing – like many others in the Swiss Alps.
“Because the summers are much nicer now, many more people are attracted to Verbier and locally the economy is booming – during summer, we’ve added three months of full occupancy,” adds Mathres.
Other Swiss resorts have followed Verbier’s lead by putting plans in place for a greener future. Zermatt, famously car-free for many years, has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainability9, while St Moritz is capitalising on its 300-plus days of sunshine with increasing use of solar panels to help power its infrastructure10. Davos, home to the World Economic Forum, has even bolder aims – with the ski resort hoping to achieve energy self-sufficiency by 203611.
“Switzerland tends to be a very pro-active country when it comes to dealing with climate change,” says Butler at Barclays Private Bank. “But property investors shouldn’t just be reliant on that; there are many small things individual property owners can do themselves to reduce their own carbon footprints – from water conserving to recycling, energy usage and more.”
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