Why you should care

Because Christmas may never be the same again.

Cable cars float overhead as skiers trudge toward the bar down below in search of a warm cup of glühwein. Today’s a relatively normal December day outside the Hausbergbahn ski station in Garmisch, Germany, although just across the parking lot, Ewan Cameron is wondering how long the slope behind his lodge will remain this color: green.

Garmisch has since been blanketed in snow, but it wasn’t alone in shaking its fist at the skies earlier this winter. High and low, European ski resorts suffered: Chamonix, in the Rhone-Alps of southeastern France, received some snow at the end of November, though none again until January. Some places didn’t see any, and at least one village resorted to importing theirs — by helicopter. Sure, El Niño likely played a role this season, but last December was similarly slim on the white stuff. And experts say this is what we can increasingly expect for Alpine resorts in the decades to come. So while Europeans love to ski during the winter holidays, their opportunities for doing so are gradually slipping away.

The resorts have to change. They can’t concentrate only on skiing anymore.

We know the planet is heating up: Global warming over the past century has been responsible for a 1-degree Celsius change around the world — just short of 2 degrees Fahrenheit. But in the Alpine region, it has warmed by 1.6 degrees Celsius, according to Dr. Jürgen Schmude, a professor of economic geography and tourism research at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians University. Other factors pushing the mercury include tourism and ski-industry emissions, as well as solar radiation, which is also higher in the Alps. Daniel Goetz, a climatologist and snow researcher at Meteo France, says we can’t claim with certainty that recent warm Decembers are linked to global warming. It’s perhaps due to natural variations, but these seasons do offer a glimpse of the winters that lie ahead, he adds.

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A snow inspection, in preparation for the FIS World Cup Ski Jumping in Klingenthal, Germany, in fall 2015.

Source Matej Divizna/Getty

Either way, this is bad news for low-altitude resorts — those under roughly 1,500 meters — which will struggle to remain viable by 2050. “In the future, these kinds of winters with poor snowpack will be progressively more common,” says Goetz, noting how many resorts need at least 100 days with roughly a foot of snow to profit. Germany will be the hardest hit, says Schmude, pointing to low-altitude skiing in the Bavarian Forest. While much will depend on the rate of climate change, Zugspitze is the only German ski resort that he thinks will be safe. But some French slopes in the central region — Vosges and Jura Mountains — might also be affected, as well as a few in Italy’s South Tyrol, based on their elevations.

Yet some tour operators are actually prospering from warmer climes, taking advantage of clear days when the flakes refuse to fall. Jake Doherty, owner of tour company All Things Garmisch, saw demand for his walking tours pick up, while Sean Potts, proprietor of Fly Chamonix, which offers tandem paragliding, also fared well. Little snow usually means calm, sunny weather — which turns out to be great for paragliding. “We are almost overwhelmed with demand by frustrated skiers looking to add a bit of sparkle to their visit,” Potts recently told OZY.

So what’s a skier hell-bent on a snowy holiday to do? Start thinking about Easter, rather than Christmas, as Schmude’s modeling shows that, while Europeans will have fewer heavy-snow days for skiing, the season is shifting later in the year. Others may just wait to book their holidays for this December until the snow actually falls. But many will commit anyway, risking a trip where they spend a break whisking down a mountain entirely on artificial snow against a green backdrop.

For their part, ski-lift operators and tourist officials in places like Chamonix and Garmisch say they can’t attribute this year’s — or last year’s — weather to a particular pattern. And indeed there will still be winters with abundant snow. “But the resorts have to change,” warns Schmude. “They can’t concentrate only on skiing anymore.” Garmisch is already on the case, with a refrigerated skating rink and lots of hiking tours nearby, while Chamonix this year extended hours at a local animal park for visitors. Meanwhile, back at Hausbergbahn, Cameron says skiers and snowboarders don’t seem to mind the lack of snow and that lots of people are hitting the mountain to hike or bike. He’s not worried about business going south just yet. But, he adds, “This is the worst I’ve seen for a long time.”

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