Snow tourism is an economic sector of great relevance in the high mountain areas of the Pyrenees and the rest of Spain, for example in Sierra Nevada , and also one of the most vulnerable to climate change. The NIVOPYR research project is an international initiative of the Pyrenees Work Community aimed at evaluating the influence of climate change on the evolution of snow tourism, and more specifically alpine skiing, in the Pyrenees. The decrease in snowfall is a fact that has increased since 1990 due to global warming; hence the concern.
In the period 2005-2012, for example, the Spanish ski resorts had a turnover of 103 million euros on average. All the resorts have 190,095 hotel beds, so ski tourism is essential for rural and peripheral areas of large mountainous regions, as well as for their socio-cultural and economic well-being.
But mountain areas have been identified as regions especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change . In fact, a long-standing station in Spain has already closed: the Navacerrada port, which will be transformed into environmental facilities and will see its ski infrastructures dismantled. The reason, according to the Ministry (owner of the land) is the progressive loss of snow due to global warming and other impacts generated by the massive influx of tourists.
50% or 78% less snow in the Pyrenees
A report from the Pyrenean Observatory of Climate Change on the warming of the Pyrenees recently showed how in its central part, the at an altitude of 1,800 meters, it could lose 50% of its snow cover by 2050.
But in lower areas, the situation could be even more dramatic, with a reduction of 78% below of 1,500 meters during the last quarter of a century. And it is that in the Pyrenees, the average temperature has already increased by 1.2 degrees in 50 years, 30% more than in the rest of the European mountain systems.
The State Meteorological Agency foresees, for example, for Aragon an increase in the average value of the maximum temperature throughout the year of between 4º and 6 ° C, and between 2º and 4º ° C in winter . The conclusion would lead us to an increase in the mean value of the minimum temperature throughout the annual period of between 3º and 5 ° C, and between 1º and 3 ° C in the winter period, all in an intermediate assumption of the emission level.
This, as regards the maximum and minimum, because the average temperatures, according to these reports, would rise between 2º and 5º centigrade.
Very notable from 2050
These increases are already being noticed, as the records show a sustained increase in temperature for decades, but they will begin to be marked from 2050, so that, by that time, the increase is expected to be around two degrees Celsius in the case of maximum average winter temperatures and between 1º and 2 ° Celsius for the average minimum winter temperatures.
So it refers to Sierra Nevada , it will also be hotter, because, on the one hand, the temperature The annual average will increase, and on the other hand, the area will face more frequent episodes of heat waves. Rainfall will become less and, as a consequence, the ski season will be reduced. «The decrease in precipitation in the form of snow and the spatial contraction of the thickness of the snow cover, due to the increase in temperatures, will generate a decrease in income from ski tourism and other winter activities in the Sierra Nevada environment ».
This is reflected in a study of the Andalusian Plan of Action by the Climate, whose validity is expected until 2030. The document establishes the panorama that the province of Granada faces, for example, if the trend observed in recent years is maintained. As is already known, one of the enclaves that will be most affected – and that in fact serves as a reference element, a laboratory for climate change – is Sierra Nevada.
The annex published by the Board goes to the field of what is practical and establishes that this expected scenario will mean a decrease in income from ski tourism and alpine activities.
«Given the reduction in the snow period, changes in tourist patterns are foreseen, and with it population movements of both tourists and managers and workers ». This point refers specifically to Sierra Nevada, although I do not name it, since it is the only ski resort in Andalusia.
This situation will lead to a loss of snow in the Spanish resorts, as is generally the case in Europe. In several countries they are already redirecting the activity of the ski resorts towards other activities: hiking, mountain, environmental education …
An alternative to combat this loss of snow is the installation of artificial snow cannons. The report of the Pyrenean Observatory indicates that, with a rise in temperatures of 2ºC, 63% of the ski resorts will be unviable without snow cannons artificial. In fact, already today many Spanish stations depend on it to save the situation. But the enormous power outage of this system makes it, according to experts, highly unsustainable. The outlook could not be more uncertain.
Jorge Olcina, climatologist:
“It is a fact that snowfall has decreased by 10% in the Pyrenees”
– There is a lot of talk that climate change will multiply droughts and floods, but how will it affect snowfall?
– Of course, climate change due to rising temperatures will lead to changes in the presence of snow on the mountain. In fact, the reduction of mountain glaciers has already been noticed for years in many areas of the world. And, along with it, is the decrease in snow precipitation that the models are pointing to almost all over the world, with some regional nuances.
– Have you already noticed this phenomenon in Spain?
– In Spain there has already been a notable reduction in mountain glaciers and snowfields from 1990 to the present. For example, in the Pyrenees, different studies have indicated that this decrease already affects 10% of its initial surface since that year, on average. The snowfall season has also been reduced, due to the general process of rising temperatures.
-What are the main consequences of warming?
– In general, the Thermal warming that the Earth has been experiencing in a prominent way for four decades will mean an increase in atmospheric episodes of heat and a decrease in those of cold. But that does not mean that we can (and will) continue to record intense snowfall episodes such as the one that occurred at the beginning of the year with the storm Filomena, because the atmospheric circulation in our hemisphere is becoming more meridian, and it brings us closer to frequency polar or arctic air masses that generate heavy snowfall events.
– There is a lot of talk about the increase in tropical nights and the increase in sea temperature.Is it also applicable to the peaks?
– No, directly, but indirectly. The presence of warm waters in the Mediterranean Sea favors that, if Danas or cold drops occur in winter months, “torrential” snowfalls develop, as has already been recorded in recent years in areas of the Mediterranean coast, both in mountains and even in cities near the coastline. For its part, the rise in temperature during summers, although they do not reach the values of 'tropical nights', are favoring the development of hot days and loss of thermal comfort in an increasingly common way in mountain areas, which even now they have always been characterized by their temperatures, even 'cool' in summer.
– Episodes like those of the Does the storm Filomena help confirm climate change or generate more skepticism among the population?
– Phenomena like that of the storm Filomena, will be more frequent from now on, because the arctic air that it comes directly from the north pole, it is descending more and more frequently towards our latitudes. And this is an effect of the general climate warming process that our planet is experiencing. This is because the current of winds that surrounds the north pole has weakened and circulates more and more in the form of a meander of a river, and not in a rectilinear way. In this way, the Arctic air is favored to reach our latitudes more regularly. And when that arctic air takes off, it develops cold drops or DANAS that in winter give rise to snow storms that can become torrential, as happened with Filomena or as happened in January 2020 with the storm Gloria in many areas of the interior of the Mediterranean coastline. It is an effect of atmospheric warming on mid-latitude atmospheric circulation.