Surrounded by rugged peaks so high they tear clouds apart, the tractor-size groomer backs over a 40-foot-tall mound of compacted snow, unrolling a bolt of white fabric. On top of the mound, six workers are stitching fabric panels together with a handheld, heavy-duty sewing machine. It’s June at Kitzsteinhorn in Austria, one of the highest and coldest ski areas in the Alps, and meltwater is gushing into ravines on the flanks of the mountain. But up on the glacier, the slope maintenance crew is preparing for the next season.
Even at 10,000 feet, counting on natural snow has become too risky. So the team led by technical manager Günther Brennsteiner is taking out insurance. They’ve spent a month plowing the last of this season’s snow into eight multistory mounds, of which the largest are bigger than football fields. They’re now spending another month covering the mounds with fabric to insulate them over the summer. When the new season begins, if it’s too warm for fresh snow to fall—or even for artificial snow to be made—dump trucks and groomers will spread old snow on the slopes.
Figuring out how to stockpile snow at this scale hasn’t been easy, says one of the workers, Hannes Posch. Before the crew started stitching the panels together, wind gusts sometimes ripped them apart, uncovering the mounds. Other times, the fabric froze solid into the snow.
“Everything that could go wrong, has,” Posch says, as he zip-ties a sandbag to the fabric. Once, at the nearby resort of Kitzbühel, lightning set a fabric-covered snow depot like this ablaze, and 30 firefighters battled the flames for hours. Snow is that precious these days.
“With the warming climate, everything has changed,” Brennsteiner says. He started working here 31 years ago, during what now seem like the glory years of Alpine skiing.
Alpine winters are dying. Since the 19th century, average temperatures in these mountains have risen by two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 Fahrenheit—about twice the global average. Snow is arriving later in the season and melting sooner. The Alps as a whole have lost about a month of snow cover, according to scientists who analyzed data from more than 2,000 weather stations.
To many of the 14 million people who live in one of the world’s most densely populated mountain ranges, the implications are terrifying. The economy here depends on snow to lure 120 million tourists a year—far more than visit the United States. Besides working at Kitzsteinhorn, Brennsteiner serves as mayor of Niedernsill, a village of 2,800 at the foot of the mountain. There’s hardly a family in the village that doesn’t depend on winter, he says. Without snow, it might shrink to a thousand people.
“We wouldn’t have children in kindergarten,” Brennsteiner says, describing a downward spiral. “This is the foundation of our lives here.”
To save themselves, the people of the Alps are going to dramatic lengths. An estimated 100,000 snowmaking machines now power the Alpine ski industry, enough to blanket an area the size of New York City within hours. Beyond snow depots like Kitzsteinhorn’s, desperate locals are swaddling the ice on a few of the Alps’ roughly 4,000 glaciers, to try to delay the rapid melt caused by global warming. In one visionary scheme, Swiss scientists hope to save a glacier by spraying a swath of it with human-made snow.
Some of these methods are ingenious and tantalizing; others are environmentally and economically questionable. All are driven by a profound apprehension: Without winter, what would our lives here be?
Like Brennsteiner and photographer Ciril Jazbec, I was lucky enough to grow up in the Alps at a time when snow was abundant. I remember the excitement of leaving my tiny footprints in the season’s first snowfall; I remember the color of my dad’s cheeks as he shoveled the house free, again and again. My parents clapped my first skis on my feet before I was three.
That period turns out to have been a historical blip. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that cold, snowy winters became a boon for the Alps. Before then they were a harsh burden, attributed in folklore to wicked demons. My generation is among the last to have heard oral histories of the struggle to survive here, back when the economy was based on farming. Snow used to cover tiny plots of land for months. Avalanches thundered down the mountainsides, burying villages. One of my grandma’s nine siblings, Walter, died in one. He was 24.
When food was scarce—and it generally was—children from the poorest pockets of the Alps were forced to trek to lowland markets, where they sold themselves into seasonal bondage as farmworkers, typically from March to October. “A barely concealed slave market,” the Cincinnati Times-Star wrote in 1908, describing one such market in Friedrichshafen, in southern Germany. It reported as many as 400 boys and girls up for barter, some as young as six, “as if they were a lot of calves or chickens.” The practice lasted well into the 20th century.
After World War II, an economic boom created a thriving middle class across Europe—but not, at first, in the high Alps. The steep mountainsides made it impossible for farms to expand or to deploy the modern machinery that allowed others to prosper, says Johann Wolf, who was born in the remote village of Ischgl, Austria, in 1929, during the coldest winter on record. “The scales turned against mountain farming,” he says. Some of his siblings left the secluded valley, but he stayed.
Winter tourism, Wolf and other villagers reckoned, was the only thing that could save them. In desperation, they sold livestock and put up their land against loans to invest in a cable car. Ischgl stood to lose everything, but the gamble paid off. In 1963, the cable car began pulling tourists up the mountains, and locals out of poverty. Around the Alps, a similar transition was under way.
Today, a four-star hotel stands on the 400-year-old farm where Wolf was born. It’s surrounded in Ischgl by luxury chalets with Jacuzzis, fine restaurants, and a vibrant nightlife scene that has hosted concerts by Rihanna, Pink, and Lenny Kravitz. Next December, Ischgl is set to open thermal baths and an ice-skating rink.
Many locals still see themselves as down-to-earth farmers who love their valley. Wolf’s son Hannes and 26-year-old grandson, Christoph, introduce me to their cattle—Hermann, Kathi, Gitta, and Lilly—as the four munch fragrant hay on some of the Alps’ most expensive real estate. The family would never think of getting rid of them. “It’s heritage and duty,” Wolf says.
Yet Alpine farming is no longer enough to make a living. “Without winter, these valleys would be completely abandoned and empty,” says Hannes Wolf. In 2020, Ischgl got a horrifying foretaste of such a world, when it became an early hot spot in the COVID-19 pandemic. Fleeing tourists helped spread the virus in Europe.
The pandemic shut down ski tourism across the Alps. Millions of hotel beds stayed cold. But climate change poses a more profound threat.
One or two degrees of warming may not sound like much, but it can determine whether precipitation falls as snow—or rain. Turn up the temperature just a notch, and snowflakes might never form. That’s why the Alps are in deep trouble, says Yves Lejeune, the scientist in charge of the Col de Porte meteorological observatory, at 4,350 feet in the western French Alps.
On his way to work, Lejeune passes Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse, a small village with a church at its center and ski runs up the mountainsides. At age five, he learned to ski here. But the village lies low, at about 3,300 feet. “Now, it’s finished,” Lejeune says bluntly. “Maybe they’ll have one or two good years, but not more.”
Such areas already were plagued by a series of snow-scarce winters in the 1980s and ’90s. Machines that make snow became the Alps’ first line of defense. In lower-lying regions, millions in investments seemed justified to guarantee a steady tourism season. Winters with light snow were assumed to be outliers then.
Lejeune’s data prove that they weren’t. He points to a graph comparing the snow depth at Col de Porte in the past 30-year period with the previous one. The line plunges downward, showing an average snow-cover decrease of 15 inches. “That’s a lot,” Lejeune says. “That’s really a lot.”
The warming now has reached higher elevations. “If someone had told me back then that we’d ever need snow machines, I’d have said, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” says Peter Leo, Kitzsteinhorn’s head of snow management. Today “we couldn’t live without these machines.”
Neither can most of the Alps’ 1,100 ski lift operators. Much of the snow in ski areas is now human made. On Kitzsteinhorn alone, 104 grass-colored “snow cannons” are strategically positioned around the slopes. Each weighs and costs as much as a small car.
When Leo turns one on, it becomes hard to hear him. On the machine’s outer ring, nozzles infuse water droplets with air, and a massive fan—“strong enough to suck you in,” he yells—blows them into the sky. As they descend, water droplets from the inner rings clump around the initial crystals, forming snowflakes.
Standing on a glacier like Kitzsteinhorn, it’s hard to grasp how tiny snowflakes could have formed such an immense mass of ice. It happened over centuries, each fresh layer of snow pressing on the ones beneath, until the snow solidified into ice and began to flow downhill under its own weight. Snow accumulates in winter, and snow and ice melt in summer, mostly at lower altitudes. When winter gain exceeds summer loss, the glacier’s snout advances down into the valley; when summer triumphs, the glacier retreats. Since the late 19th century, glaciers in the Alps have retreated almost continuously.
Swiss glaciologist Felix Keller has an idea for reversing that trend. Keller grew up in a village next to St. Moritz, the birthplace of winter tourism in the Alps. When I met him there last year, he took me to the nearby Hotel Morteratsch, where he showed me a black-and-white photograph of the last crown prince of Germany, Wilhelm, taken in 1919. The prince and his entourage stood beaming on the Morteratsch Glacier, which at the time was right outside the hotel. Thick ice covered the entire valley.
Keller and I went to the same spot. In the century since Wilhelm’s visit, larches and pines have taken over; in late summer, locals forage there for mushrooms and cranberries. The Morteratsch Glacier has retreated out of sight, more than a mile up the valley.
Alpine glaciers overall have lost two-thirds of their volume since 1850, and the loss is accelerating. “If we don’t act, all will be gone,” says Matthias Huss, a glaciologist at ETH Zurich. By “act,” Huss means drastically cut the carbon emissions that cause global warming.
Keller has an additional action in mind. The idea came to him on a balmy summer day in 2015, while he was fishing in a lake fed by meltwater from the Morteratsch. Glacial silt clouded the water, and the trout weren’t biting. That’s when it occurred to Keller: Couldn’t some of that meltwater be kept high in the mountains and turned back into ice?
“I figured that within 10 minutes, I’d find out why that can’t work,” he says. “But I didn’t.”
His friend and fellow glaciologist Hans Oerlemans, who has studied the Morteratsch since 1994, added a crucial twist: The meltwater should be converted into fresh snow, which reflects 99 percent of sunlight and could shield the ice in summer. Oerlemans calculated that covering just 10 percent of the glacier, in the zone where most ice loss occurs, would allow it to begin advancing again after 10 years. He and Keller felt giddy at the simplicity of the idea.
A few high-altitude ski areas already are insulating patches of glaciers by spreading fabric on them. And at a few, such as Kitzsteinhorn or Diavolezza, near the Morteratsch, snowmaking machines have caused a localized thickening of the ice. But neither of those approaches could be scaled up enough to save an entire glacier. To save the Morteratsch, Keller and Oerlemans estimate, they’d need to cover about 200 acres of it with more than 30 feet of snow every year—more than two and a half million tons of the stuff. Making that much snow with typical snow machines would use way too much energy.
For “MortAlive,” as he and Oerlemans call their project, Keller asked for help from researchers at Swiss universities, from a leading cable car company, and from Bächler Top Track AG, a snowmaking company. The team devised a scheme in which seven hoselike snow cables, each more than half a mile long, would be suspended between two moraines that flank the Morteratsch Glacier. Water from a meltwater lake at higher altitude—expected to form soon at a neighboring glacier—would flow downhill through the cables, spray out through nozzles patented by Bächler, and fall as snow on the Morteratsch. No electricity would be required.
In a parking lot near the glacier, I watched the first trial of a prototype. The team had suspended a single snow cable with six nozzles between two poles. At one point a pipe froze and had to be replaced—but the system worked. When the first snowflakes landed on his head, Keller had tears in his eyes.
Just getting to the point where a prototype could be tested required four million dollars from the Swiss government, a bank, and three foundations. The full-scale system would cost $170 million to install, Keller says. To build it, he’d need to get a permit to dig a tunnel through a protected area. It would take about a decade until the first snow could be sprayed onto the Morteratsch. By then, the glacier will have retreated another few hundred yards.
Huss, for one, is convinced the snow cables will never be deployed—because, he says, there would be little gained from the great expense. Even under a moderately optimistic climate scenario, Huss says, his simulations show that the Morteratsch Glacier will all but vanish before the end of the century—with or without MortAlive.
Keller points out that such simulations are notoriously imprecise. But he knows the glacier is running out of time.
“If on my deathbed I can tell my children and grandchildren that I at least tried to do something clever,” he says, “that will be better than saying I just talked about all the problems.”
In most of the Alps, ice and snow seem doomed. That may spell trouble downstream. Europe’s mightiest rivers—the Rhône, Rhine, Danube, and Po—all derive a substantial portion of their flow during dry summers from glacial meltwater. Seasonal shipping and irrigation could become a problem. The Alps, however, will continue to be Europe’s “water towers”—clouds will continue to burst and empty on their flanks—and rich countries likely will find ways to safeguard their water supplies.
The loss of winter tourism may prove trickier. Entire communities are now grappling with their very existence being dependent on a phenomenon so fleeting it melts at the touch of your hand. Many are investing more heavily in summer—in mountain biking or hiking trails, summer tobogganing or climbing spaces. Kitzsteinhorn is seeing an influx of summer tourists from scorched countries such as Saudi Arabia. But summer tourism has always existed in the Alps, and expanding it enough to make up for the loss of skiing will be hard.
The French village of Abondance, altitude 3,000 feet, is in the middle of this difficult transition. When its lifts shut down in 2007, it was described in one news story after another as the first ski village to fall victim to climate change. But its 1,400 residents weren’t ready to bid adieu to skiing. In 2008 they voted in a new mayor, Paul Girard-Despraulex, who fulfilled his sole campaign promise and reopened the lifts.
Born into a family of farmers the year the cable car was built, Girard-Despraulex had seen his village prosper with skiing. Yet when an investor approached him with a plan to double down—to develop Abondance into a massive ski resort by connecting it with a neighboring one—the mayor was flabbergasted. The plan would have entailed blowing up part of a mountain and destroying an old fir forest. “That’s something we did not want to do,” Girard-Despraulex says.
Elsewhere in the Alps, too, plans for expanding winter tourism have met resistance. In Austria, 160,000 people signed a petition to stop plans to connect the Ötztal and Pitztal ski areas, again by blowing up part of a mountain. In Morzine, France, near Abondance, a new cable car project was halted after locals protested. An independent analysis had shown that it might not pay off in an increasingly snowless climate.
In Abondance, Girard-Despraulex is pushing diversification. Aside from its stunningly beautiful ski area, it now boasts ice-skating on a natural lake and sleigh rides in winter, as well as more mountain biking and hiking in summer. There’s a museum dedicated to Abondance cheese—dairy farming remains important around the village. Recently, Girard-Despraulex had the roof reslated on an abandoned, 900-year-old abbey, so it could safely open to visitors.
“We have not yet exactly found the right approach, the right ideas, but we are thinking, testing, and experimenting,” he says. In the abbey’s courtyard, he points to a mural depicting the wedding at Cana, where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine. An upcoming restoration, the mayor says, will make the faded colors shine again.
No miracle will save winter in the Alps. Making snow, stockpiling it, spraying it on glaciers—all that will, at best, buy time in a few places.
The beauty of the Alps, the envy of outsiders long before people here built their lives around snowy winters, will remain. But the waning of snow and ice represents an emotional loss, a loss of culture and identity, as well as an economic one. When Switzerland’s Pizol Glacier shrank to such a tiny sheet of ice that it was taken off the glacier monitoring service, locals mourned its death with a funeral.
When I was little, skiing was a pastime enjoyed by the vast majority of people in the Alps, no matter their status or income. Like me, my childhood friend Dominik and his partner, Julia, were pushed onto the slopes at a very early age. Less than three decades on, their son, Johann, who just turned four and is my godson, is fascinated by snow. But he knows it largely from songs and books.
On a sunny Sunday last February, we drive up Unterberg mountain near Vienna, in the easternmost Alps, in search of the real stuff. Just underneath the 4,400-foot peak, we find a little winter. “It sparkles!” Johann yells, tossing himself in the snow and gingerly licking it from his mitten. He wants to build a snowman, but the snow is less than an inch deep.
His mother, Julia, 33, learned to ski here. “We never even wondered if Unterberg would have enough snow to open,” she says, as we trudge past the idle T-bar lifts. When those lifts were about to close for good in 2014, locals crowdfunded almost $83,000 to keep them going. But at this altitude it’s too warm to invest in snowmaking. So Unterberg relies solely on natural snow, promoting itself as a ski area where “the snow still falls from the sky.” Last winter, that made for 10 days of skiing. The winter before, zero.
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This story appears in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.