Winter sports and sustainability – a contradiction?

aware_ spoke with Andreas Innerhofer, CEO of Bergbahnen Gastein, about sustainability in winter sports, the impending decline of snow, and how popular winter sports tourism can still be reconciled with a sustainable conscience.

This season it was clearer than ever: green mountains everywhere you looked, a white strip running through the mountain backdrop, the valley run mostly barely passable. In most ski resorts, the lack of snow due to global warming was particularly noticeable this season. The mass phenomenon of winter sports, on which entire regions now depend economically, has been an integral part of tourism in parts of southern Germany and in the Alps since the middle of the 20th century. Whether skiing or snowboarding, winter sports of all kinds have become a popular vacation activity and a tradition for many. But climate change could put a spanner in the works of this phenomenon and soon make alpine skiing in particular a rather expensive and thus exclusive pleasure once again: Winters are getting warmer and there is less and less snow. Every decade in the northern hemisphere, the snowpack decreases by one to two percent in the period from March to April and the snow season becomes shorter by more than five days, notes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s September 2019 report on ice melt. Across Europe, 90 percent of monitoring stations are recording declining snow totals. Snow depth is decreasing by an average of 12 percent per decade, the Dutch University of Wagingen has determined. Lower-lying areas are primarily affected by the lack of snow. But the Alps with higher mountains are also increasingly relying on artificial snow, which, according to a recent study, still guarantees at least 100 days of snow per season in ski resorts above 1,800 meters, but can bring new problems: Energy and water consumption for snowmaking will be enormous, because the amount of artificial snow that must be produced to guarantee snow will also multiply. In total, ski resorts in Austria currently consume around 250 gigawatt hours annually for snowmaking. Nevertheless, according to the study, skiing could remain possible until the end of the century even if climate change continues undiminished (mdrARD alphaAGUDerStandard). 

winter sports

But how can winter sports tourism still be reconciled with a sustainable conscience in the face of increasing glacier melt, rising global warming, and energy and water shortages? 

One example of sustainable winter sports tourism is Gasteiner Bergbahnen AG. The company has set itself the goal of providing a sustainable mountain experience for generations and living up to its ecological and economic responsibility for the mountain environment with the help of numerous projects and innovations. 

For example, only green electricity is obtained and part of the energy is generated by photovoltaic systems. Panels on the roofs of the lift stations are used to generate their own electricity and, in combination with a heat pump and a ground-coupled heat storage system, cover almost the entire heating and hot water requirements of one of the stations. 
A planned solar park on one of the valley stations is expected to save around 170 tons of CO2 emissions per year in the near future and provide an annual yield of 364,500 kilowatt hours. 

When it comes to snowmaking, Gastein focuses on sustainability and resource efficiency with methods that are as gentle and efficient as possible, such as snow depth measurement and snow fences. Snow fences prevent wind drifts and ensure that snow accumulates specifically where it is needed. This means that less snow needs to be made and the natural snow stays on the slopes longer. The GPS snow depth measurement of the snow groomers determines exactly how many centimeters of snow are on the slope and how much needs to be re-covered with snow for a perfect slope. 

Another environmental polluter in winter sports is the arrival and departure of guests and mobility in the ski area. These are responsible for 70-80 percent of the CO2 footprint of Austrian tourism. With direct train connections, discounts on train and ski ticket combinations, free use of public transport with the ski pass, numerous e-charging stations for cars and bicycles, and a pilot project for car sharing, Gastein is also providing environmentally friendly alternatives here (Gasteiner Bergbahnen AG). 

winter sports

aware_ spoke with Andreas Innerhofer, Board of Directors Bergbahnen Gastein, about sustainability in winter sports and the imminent decline of snow. 

aware_: Keyword water and energy consumption – what methods are used for snowmaking and operating ski lifts? 

Andreas Innerhofer: With every snow groomer we have placed a GPS snow depth measuring system and thus know exactly how many centimeters of snow are at which location. This allows us to perform the snowmaking in the most resource-optimized way possible. We also act in a resource-saving way with the chairlifts and operate according to supply demand: On busy days with a high volume of skiers, we operate at full speed, while on days when there is less going on, we reduce the speed and can thus save energy. 

aware_: How do you counteract the problem of deforestation (as well as blasting rocks and diverting rivers) to create ski slopes? 

Andreas Innerhofer: We in Gastein pursue a very clear sustainability strategy: We use what we have available. The majority of the slopes are natural areas that were already freely available before they were used for ski slopes and did not require any rock blasting. We have also set ourselves the clear goal of not opening up any new areas that are far outside the ski area. Unlike other ski areas, we do not want to become even bigger and even wider. 

aware_: Off-piste skiing and illuminated skiing at night are popular attractions in ski resorts – how do you ensure that flora and fauna remain as undisturbed as possible? 

Andreas Innerhofer: The night ski or sled run in Gastein is located directly in the area of the town center and not on the mountain. Accordingly, the location is already influenced by light and noise anyway and hardly represents an additional burden. Freeriding on the other hand is a topic of interest in Gastein, as there are particularly distinctive skiing possibilities. However, freeriding is only possible when there is sufficient snow, which means that the turf remains untouched. In addition, freeriders are a very nature-loving crowd. Moreover, we offer conscious guided tours, provide information about wildlife sanctuaries and reforestation forests, and our guests generally comply. 

aware_: How do you counteract the indirect environmental impact of winter mass tourism? 

Andreas Innerhofer: We actively work with the winter mass tourism and do not counteract. The Gasteiner Bergbahnen make a big contribution to this, with what we deliver to the guest as resource-conserving as possible: Whether through the snowmaking on the slopes or our cable cars – we deliver to the guest what is needed to start the skiing vacation in a resource-conserving way. The idea of sustainability also always resonates at our construction sites. We do not seek to destroy any landscape, always have an ecological construction supervisor on site and conduct nature conservation negotiations for every construction project. The biggest problem, but also the biggest potential, is travel: Here we are committed, for example through campaigns with ÖBB, to make travel to the region more palatable. If we have the opportunity here to save up to 80 percent of emissions, and even improve only 10 percent after guests arrive at the ski resort, then we have already made a big contribution. 

– by Marie Klimczak 

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