Hundreds of ski resorts now stand abandoned across the Alps. But some scientists believe they have found a way to keep snow on the ground – and that it could help vulnerable communities all over the world.
By Simon Parkin
When the French entrepreneur Jacques Mouflier visited the remote Alpine village of Val d’Isère in 1935, he saw the future before him. “A miracle is going to happen,” Mouflier told his young son, as he gestured towards the mountains encircling the village. “Ski champions from every country will come to compete where we’re standing right now.”
He was right. In 1948 Val d’Isère produced France’s first Olympic ski champion, and ever since, professional athletes have flocked to the village, which sits 1,850 metres above sea level, to train and compete. They are joined by tens of thousands of amateurs. Last year the resort sold 1.3m ski “days” to tourists, and more Britons visit Val d’Isère each year than any other ski resort in the world.
Villagers claim to be able to predict the year’s coming snowfall by the berries on the local rowan trees. Plump clumps in summer promise deep snow in winter. For decades, the branches drooped under the berries’ weight. But in the mid-1980s, locals began to notice a change. The date of the first snowfall began to drift later. Patches of bare ground appeared on slopes that, in previous years, had been covered in an uninterrupted white drift. Some ski seasons would have an abundance of snow; others, a scarcity. More consistent was the retreat of the Pissaillas glacier, whose run-off water feeds the surrounding forests; each year it withdrew a little farther up the Pointe du Montet mountain, which dominates the jagged horizon. By 2014, snow was arriving so late to Val d’Isère that, for the first time in its history, the Critérium de la Première Neige was relocated, to a more snow-reliable resort in Sweden.