Warmer winters, but no problem at high altitude


By Arjen on 20 November 2020 · 0

The Sonnblick Observatory (3106m), one of the weather stations where the measurements come from
The Sonnblick Observatory (3106m), one of the weather stations where the measurements come from

Winters in the Alpine countries have become warmer due to climate change and the snow cover in low-lying areas is declining, according to a joint study by the German, Swiss and Austrian weather services. This trend is likely to continue in the future, but that does not necessarily have to be a disaster for skiing and snowboarding, say the researchers. In the higher ski areas (from 1500-2000 meters), enough snow will continue to fall in the future. Artificial snow is also possible, but hey, that's not really our thing.

Temperatures rise intermittently

The results were presented by the three major weather institutes of Germany, Switzerland and Austria yesterday. The Deutscher Wetterdienst (DWD), MeteoSchweiz and the Zentralanstalt für Meteorologie und Geodynamik (ZAMG) indicate that the average air temperature has risen at all altitudes in winter, albeit less sharply than in summer and spring.

All measuring stations on the mountain in the three countries show a rising temperature trend in winter, sometimes interrupted by phases with lower temperatures. For example, on the Sonnblick (3106m), near the Mölltaler Glacier it has cooled slightly over the past 30 years. Especially from 2000 we had a few colder winters. In the 134-year measurement history, however, the trend is increasing by an average of 1.9 degrees (significant).

In recent years the winters have been particularly mild again. The three warmest winters in Austria's 253-year history of measurement are the winters of 2006/2007, 2019/2020 and shared third place in 2013/2014 and 2015/2016. In Germany, six of the ten warmest winters are from the post-2000 period, and in Switzerland 2019/2020 was the warmest winter since 1864.

These are all winters since the start of the measurements from three mountain stations: the Sonnblick (Austria, 3106m), Hohenpeissenberg (Southern Germany, 989m) and Säntis (Switzerland, 2504m).

Säntis (CH) / Source: DWD/ZAMG/MeteoSchweiz
Säntis (CH) / Source: DWD/ZAMG/MeteoSchweiz

Sonnblick (O) / Source: DWD/ZAMG/MeteoSchweiz
Sonnblick (O) / Source: DWD/ZAMG/MeteoSchweiz

Hohenpeißenberg (D) / Source: DWD/ZAMG/MeteoSchweiz
Hohenpeißenberg (D) / Source: DWD/ZAMG/MeteoSchweiz

Snow in higher areas no problem

However, the warmer winters are not yet a threat to higher-altitude ski areas. In mild winters, it will also be cold enough here in the future for sufficient natural snow. Above 1500 to 2000 meters altitude is above all the amount of precipitation determining.

In lower-lying areas it is exactly the opposite. Rising temperatures have a much greater influence here because rain falls more often instead of snow and fallen snow melts away sooner. The average number of days with a closed snow cover also decreased here. The snow remains on the ground later and melts away earlier in the spring. The effect is greatest in the spring because the spring months are warmed up stronger than the autumn months.

Below you can see the number of days with a closed snow cover in Innsbruck (Austria, 574m), Munich (Southern Germany, 519m) and Einsiedeln (near the Swiss area of Hoch - Ybrig, 882m). In Innsbruck, the snow cover has decreased by about 30% in the last 90 years. In Einsiedeln, the decrease is smaller, with somewhat snowier winters again between 2004 and 2014.

Innsbruck (O) / Source: DWD/ZAMG/MeteoSchweiz
Innsbruck (O) / Source: DWD/ZAMG/MeteoSchweiz

München (D) / Source: DWD/ZAMG/MeteoSchweiz
München (D) / Source: DWD/ZAMG/MeteoSchweiz

Einsiedeln (CH) / Source: DWD/ZAMG/MeteoSchweiz
Einsiedeln (CH) / Source: DWD/ZAMG/MeteoSchweiz

The aim is to have a clean discussion

You can see that the temperature and snow cover vary greatly from year to year. The researchers therefore note that a trend analysis is difficult and must be scientifically substantiated. In addition, regional differences may occur. Only from a time series of 80 years can a distinction be made between natural temperature fluctuations and the warming caused by humans. By conducting this research jointly and thoroughly with three different weather services, the aim is to allow politicians to have a clean discussion about possible measures for the long term.

Less impact on artificial snow

There is also been some research into the impact of producing artificial snow. That's not really our cup of tea, but on the other hand it's a guarantee for the resorts to stay in business, which is good for freeriding as well. Anyway, a gradual increase in winter temperature ensures that, on average, artificial snow can be sprayed in a shorter period, and less often. However, this does not necessarily have to be a problem as many ski areas only need a few cold days to provide the area with sufficient artificial snow. The researchers therefore say that the possibilities for snow making depend mainly on local conditions, such as the number of snow cannons, the altitude, the amount of water and the further development of snow-making techniques. Apart from that, artificial snow is more resistant to higher temperatures because of its more compact composition.

Sources: ZAMG, DWD, MeteoSchweiz


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