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From Schuss to Slush: Warming Trend Threatens Resorts in French Alps

By Associated Press (Associated Press) - July 22, 2007

Muddy slopes, slushy peaks, unused lifts — one town in the French Alps is living out the nightmare of many a ski resort in a century scientists say is doomed to keep becoming warmer.

The city council of Abondance — its name a cruel reminder of the generous snowfall it once enjoyed — voted, 9-6, last month to shut down the ski station that has been its economic raison d’être for more than 40 years.

The reason: not enough snow.

Abondance is the French Alps’ first ski station to fall victim to what is said to be global warming. It is not likely to be the last.

At 3,051 feet, this station between Mont Blanc and Lake Leman falls in the altitude range climate scientists say has had the most drastic drop in snowfall in recent generations.

The Alps as a whole, which pull in about 70 million tourists every year primarily for winter sports, are “particularly sensitive” to climate change, according to a study last winter by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

It calls climate change a serious threat to Alpine ski resorts and the regional economies that depend on them.

The most recent World Cup ski circuit was badly hit by a lack of snow, with several races in the Alps — even at high altitudes — called off.

In Switzerland, melting permafrost has forced several companies to take technical measures to ensure their stations do not fall off the mountain.

Last week, a commercial court in Lyon put Transmontagne, which operates midaltitude resorts in France, Switzerland, Italy and Slovenia, under bankruptcy protection for the next six months. Warming weather is seen as a key reason for its financial woes.

Abondance’s troubles are alarming towns in the surrounding valleys. Homeowners fear a crash in housing prices.

Neighboring La Chappelle-d’Abondance is considering changing its name to disassociate itself from the ski station.

Abondance Mayor Serge Cettour-Meunier said he feared that the closure of his station was the start of a troubling trend.

“Skiing is again becoming a sport for the rich,” because only elite high-altitude resorts will have sufficient snowfall, he said.

The $3.03 million annual economy of his town and its 1,300 residents depend on winter sports.

Last year, the lifts sustained a loss of $882,000.

“The town can no longer pay,” Cettour-Meunier said.

Gerald Giraud of the Snow Study Center of Meteo-France in Grenoble said altitudes of 2,950 to 4,900 feet are where “global warming will pose the greatest problems.”

Even taking into account irregular weather cycles, snowfall levels fell 25.2 inches on average between 1960 and 2007 across the French Alps, he said.

His center noted a rise in average temperature of 2.7 to 3.3 degrees over the Alpine ranges since the early 1980s.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report said that warming in the Alps in recent years has been roughly three times the global average.

For geographic and geological reasons, Germany will probably suffer the most from climate change, while Switzerland is the least at risk, the report said.

Austria and Italy are slightly more sensitive than average, the report said, while France has average risk, based on climate studies and projections.

The report studied only the Alps but noted that its implications extend “to other mountain systems which may face similar challenges — for example in North America, Australia and New Zealand.”

Skiers who once frequented Abondance will probably head to larger, higher stations elsewhere in the French Alps.

But even some large, high stations in Switzerland have already resorted to artificial snow in recent years.

For smaller stations like Abondance, snow sprayers are not a viable option since they require a minimal snow cover, and the high temperatures melt any snow fast.

Longer term, the warming in the Alps could provide a boost to less-charted places like the mountains above Sochi, the Russian city on the Black Sea that is playing host to the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Investors are not ready to write off Alpine ski resorts yet, noting how unpredictable weather-dependent investments are.

“We remain calm; one shouldn’t overstate the phenomenon,” said Georges Gay-Lancernin, of Crédit Agricole de Haute Savoie, one of the chief banks financing France’s mountain economy.

Nevertheless, small stations are having increasing difficulty finding investors.

Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse, at 2,952 feet, sought public funding to upgrade one of its lifts. The improved lift, ready for the 2006-7 season, did not budge all winter because there was not enough snow.

In Abondance, where snow fell only 20 days last year, town officials have been seeking private buyers for the station for several years. Transmontagne and Remy Loisirs expressed interest but never followed through, the mayor said.

The regional council for the Haute Savoie region refused the mayor’s request for aid, deeming the station no longer profitable.

The news of the closure has hit hard in this town that has revolved around the ski station since 1964. Sporting good stores and restaurants specializing in local cheese dominate the town’s main street.

“The mayor made a courageous, realistic and calm decision,” said Andre Gagneux, a retired dairy farmer.

Marie-Jane Teninge, a restaurant owner, disagreed.

“I am skeptical about global warming; it’s just a matter of cycles,” she said, adding that she was ready to pay more taxes to keep the station open.

Jean-Charles Simiand, the president of the French national union for ski lifts and cable cars, noted that the lifts were used for hikers and mountain bikers in summer, but that the activity accounted for only 3 percent of overall lift revenues.

“The midaltitude stations must adapt,” he said. “Diversification of the economy is possible, but so far, no one has found an activity that can substitute for skiing.”