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Going green to save the white of the Alps

By Dean Irvine, CNN
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Green skiing in Germany
  • The Alps are a climate change hotspot; the area has warmed at twice the global average
  • Warmer temperatures could devastate winter tourism and the economy of the region
  • Wetter and possibly warmer winters would also change the ecology of the area
  • Winter ski resorts are taking steps to minimize their carbon footprint and diversify activities

(CNN) -- In the Alps, the term "going green" is not necessarily a good thing.

While efforts to be more environmentally friendly are welcome, the region is under threat from climate change that could mean in the future the snowy, white slopes in the winter are more a grassy, green color.

"The Alps is a climate sensitive region," said Professor Harald Kunstmann, a climate scientist for Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

With a snow-covered German Alps as his backdrop, he explained that the region has already seen a rise in temperature double the global average.

"Globally we have around 0.8 to 1 degree centigrade change, but in the Alps it's around 2 degrees centigrade.

Gallery: Climate hotspot: The Alps
Maybe in 20 years there is no Alpine skiing anymore, no low ski resort anymore, so what we do is we diversify.
--Peter Theimer, Zugspitzebahn Bergbahn

"We expect until end of the century that the temperatures will increase in the winter time between 3 and 5 degrees centigrade."

A temperature rise of that much could leave the majority of Alpine resorts snow-free.

According to figures from an OECD report from 2007, a two degree Celsius rise in temperature would reduce the number of skiable areas in the Alps from nearly 700 to around 400. Those lying below 1,500 meters are most vulnerable.

While the recreation of millions is at risk, so too is the economy of the region. Winter tourism to the Alps brings in around $66 billion each year, according to the European Environment Agency.

There are no international environmental standards for winter resorts to adhere to, although at the EU's 10th Alpine Convention last year, the eight Alpine countries agreed to continued "sustainable development of the region... by encouraging environmentally-friendly tourism."

It is largely left to national regulations and individual resorts to take the lead.

"Without a doubt resorts have been taking the environment and their impact on the environment seriously," said Betony Garner of the Ski Club of Great Britain.

"A lot of them wouldn't have had a strategy six years ago; they now have one that has building policies, recycling policies and transport. Without exception resorts are really taking it seriously."

The catalyst six years ago was one of the warmest winters in the Alps ever recorded; the last decade saw the three warmest years for 500 years. It precipitated the report from the OECD and made many in the ski industry take note.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen, at the foot of Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze, is making multiple efforts to reduce the environmental impact of winter pursuits in the area.

In the last few years solar panels have been added to the top of cable car lines, feeding back into the area's power grid, and a new power return system was installed on the resort's cog-wheel train where energy from the descending train powers its upward journey.

How can you have a green ski vacation?
Without a doubt resorts have been taking the environment and their impact on the environment seriously.
--Betony Garner, Ski Club Great Britain

Peter Theimer, CEO of the resort, also highlights a new train service that takes passengers from Munich, 90 kilometers away, directly to the heart of Garmisch.

But for Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and other resorts, he says, the CO2-saving projects have more to do with the bottom line than preparing for a snow-free future.

"Maybe in 15 to 20 years there is no alpine skiing anymore, no low ski resort anymore, so what we do is we diversify," he said.

"I don't think that the people are really afraid of the climate change here."

Despite the deep snow currently covering the area, the effects of a change in the region's climate is visible all year round.

Glaciers in the Alps have lost around two-thirds of their volume since 1850. Alpine glaciers in Germany have been covered by plastic sheeting to protect them from further shrinkage, but there is little that can really be done to prevent more melting.

Apart from the wider environmental effects it will also damage the growth of glacier skiing, itself a dubious activity for many environmentalists.

Theimer said that Garmisch-Partenkirchen can boast that around 25% of its total energy consumption is from renewable sources.

"That's also roughly the amount that, for example, our artificial snow making infrastructure consumes," said Theimer.

But snow canons, regardless of how they are powered, can't be seen as a long-term solution.

"Artificial snow does not help you if you have a general temperature increase," said Kunstmann.

For the estimated 100 million visitors to the Alps each year, diversifying their own activities could be the best long-term solution.

"There is no really environmental-friendly Alpine skiing. I don't think so," said Theimer.

"The only thing is that you can limit the effects on nature, on the environment."