Tourists To The Austrian Alps Find Snow Is In Short Supply

Jan 23, 2017
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Last week, government scientists said 2016 was the hottest since record-keeping began in the 1800s. And one place feeling the heat is the Austrian Alps, which is taking a toll on the country's ski resorts. NPR's Frank Langfitt has more from the village of Lech.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLEIGH BELLS RINGING)

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: This is the sound of Christmas in the Austrian Alps, a horse-drawn sleigh - except this sleigh isn't gliding through the snow on steel runners. It rolls along Main Street on rubber tires. That's because for the third December in a row, Lech saw almost no snowfall. That depresses longtime visitors like Siobhan Peterson. She spoke on a bus on the way to the slopes.

SIOBHAN PETERSON: I honestly was very sad and disappointed. Normally, there's - it's white enough to be, like, oh, magic - it's wonderland. But this year, it's all - it's nothing.

LANGFITT: Peterson's been coming here from England since she was 5. During Christmases back then, snow blanketed the steep mountains and piled up on the roofs of the wooden chalets that dot the valley. This Christmas was brown, the color of the bare mountainsides. Like many skiers, Peterson, now 22, blames greenhouse gas emissions for the change.

PETERSON: I think it's definitely global warming because, in general, all the snow in the Alps is bad.

LANGFITT: Scientists say you can't attribute one bad season to climate change. But even some locals say temperatures are rising.

HERMANN FERCHER: These high temperatures are our problem.

LANGFITT: Hermann Fercher runs the tourism office in Lech. He says the town got nearly 5 feet of snow in November when a warm wind blew in from Italy - temperatures in the 60s. That's almost 10 degrees higher than years before.

FERCHER: This is, in my opinion, a big difference to the past. Suddenly, it only takes five, seven days and then one and a half meters of snow is gone.

LANGFITT: The lack of snow took a toll. One leading hotel operator said occupancy in town for Christmas was down at least 20 percent from the year before. Elsewhere in Austria, the impact has been even worse.

ANDREAS GOBIET: Where I live, in the last three years, most of the smaller ski resorts had to close.

LANGFITT: Andreas Gobiet is an Austrian scientist who studied climate change in the Alps for more than a decade. We spoke over Skype.

GOBIET: One reason is that they don't have the resources to invest huge amounts of money in artificial snowmaking. And the other reason is that the smallest skiing resorts are typically at low elevations and just don't get the conditions anymore to get natural snow and to produce snow.

LANGFITT: Lech is high enough and cold enough to produce artificial snow, which is what you hear everyone skiing on right now. The problem? Michael Manhart says the town can't make enough of it. Manhart runs Lech Ski Lifts. He operates 400 snow cannons, but that's only enough to cover half the ski runs. Manhart says he needs another 600 cannons to complete the job.

MICHAEL MANHART: I could make enough snow on all the main runs within five days. Actually, five cold nights would be enough.

LANGFITT: A lot is at stake in Lech, where gross annual revenue is about $420 million, most of it coming during ski season. Franz Prettenthaler says if temperatures rise about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit from pre-industrial levels, ski resorts across the Alps could lose millions of overnight stays each winter. Prettenthaler runs a research institute on energy, climate and economics in Austria.

FRANZ PRETTENTHALER: So if all these revenues are lost, then one really could talk about devastated villages so that most of the rural population will move to the cities.

LANGFITT: After another late start, Lech finally got some snow. More than 30 inches fell in the mountains after New Year's.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Lech, Austria.

(SOUNDBITE OF EPIGRAM'S "THE STRANGERS WE ARE BECOMING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.