What does winter 2019 have in store? Style Altitude looks at snow predictions, snow stats and snow farming. Plus 6 tips for snow sure Alpine ski holidays 2019
If the ant hills were high in the Alps, in July, and the first week in August was unusually warm, then you can start waxing your powder skis because we're in for another snowy winter...
But charting the Gulf Stream, tracking El Nino or measuring the height of blue gentian flowers in Alpine pastures, is no guarantee of epic snow. Would sacrificing all your old ski kit to the Snow God maybe work to make it nuke this winter? Or would sod's law prevail for another snow drought if you just bought K2 Pinnacle 118s?
A mountain guide we know is biblical in his prophesy for seven 'lean' winters to follow an epic one. If you need a snow-blower to clear your chalet drive in the Alps, he advises, then wait another year or two because, following last winter's road-blocking snowfalls, there will be a few snow-challenged seasons meaning you'll pick one up for next to nothing because they'll have become redundant.
What's In Store
This winter, though, some resorts in the Alps had plenty of snow in store for us. Literally. Courchevel is one of several resorts that has started snow farming, stockpiling last season's snow under tauplin and insulation panels and keeping it 'on ice' for next winter. In this way, they're already ahead for the new season with 15,000 cubic metres of last winter's snow ready to create a base.
The idea of snow farming started in Davos 10 years ago where it is used to create the 4 km long cross-country trail in the lower Flüela Valley. Out of season, you can view the stored snow on a live webcam although paint drying / snow melting, hard to know which is the more exciting.
Actually only around 20 percent of the volume of the stored snow is lost through melt before next season but It's only since last winter's bumper crop of snow that the idea to keep it has really caught on across the Alps.
Then, of course, there's artificial snow to go on top of the old snow, which in times of snow drought might save the ski resorts but not the planet. The cost of artificial snow in Tignes with its 355 guns has increased by 30 percent in six years, which means more snow sure pistes but bigger bills for water and electricity and, ultimately, a bigger price of global warming.
Snow, Ski, Repeat?
Spreading last year's snow and/or producing artificial snow from cannons may help the pistes but it isn't going to cut it for this winter's powderhounds. However good a base it creates, every stormrider has been hitting the weather forecasting sites for the Allps such as We Powder from the first snowflake in late October hoping for enough fresh to open the lifts ahead of schedule. There's already a pretty good base in the Southern Alps and, by the first weekend in December, storms are predicted to nuke the North. However, as a matter of statistical interest, early snow in the Alps doesn't necessarily herald a particularly snowy winter.
So was 2018's snow in the Alps just a blip? Or can one storming ski season follow another, with a repeat of the thigh deep off piste skiing of last winter (image below, last March in Serre Chevalier)?
Finding a co-relation climate factor between winters or any sort of pattern to predict the season is the Holy Grail of forecasters.
We've trawled weather sites to find significant patterns for snow in the Alps that might give us a heads up for winter 2018-19 but the only striking fact from all the historical data is the seemingly randomness of snowfall. Only in one analysis of snow in the Swiss Alps from 1931-1999 is it noted, 'Winters with much or little snow are seldom grouped together and in every second case after a year with below-average snow follows a year with above-average snow'.
So here's an actual statistical pattern to hold on to, after every second bad winter we can hope for a really good one like winter 2017-18. But two good winters in a row? Now you're asking.
El Nino Effect
On 19th November, the chance of an El Nino effect between now and the official start of winter on 21st December was upgraded to 80 per cent from 70-75 percent according to NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In mid-October NOAA's Climate Prediction Centre forecast was for a mild winter for much of the United States for December through February with above-average temperatures most likely across the northern and western USA, Alaska and Hawaii. Above average temperatures from a moderate El Nino can mean more precipitation and good snow at high levels across the States. And for many the snow's already arrived with resorts from Killington to Mammoth open by mid-November and more lifts cranked up for the Thanksgiving weekend. For Colorado, with end of November snow storms, it's like Christmas already.
Except, owing to the amount of snowfall and unstable snowpack, Colorado has had 54 avalanches reported in 5 days, between 28th November and 2nd December. Seven of these were triggered by human error but with no injuries reported (check our Heuristic Traps).
The jury's out when it comes to predicting whether El Nino, the periodic warming of the sea surface temperature in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific, has any actual effect and measurable impact on snowfall in Europe. Some say it could be colder in the Alps. Others that it could be drier. The jury will let you know for sure sometime around January 2019.
Around the second week of January last winter 2018, over six foot of snow had fallen during 36 hours in the French Alps. There was so much snow that an ice corridor had to be created by snow ploughs reconnecting Bessans and Bonneval-sur-Arc in the Savoie region, below, while in Switzerland, Zermatt was cut off for two days.
Undoubtedly after so much snow in the Alps, last winter, cynics - and Donald Trump - will be even more dismissive of global warming.
Global warming, though, doesn't necessarily mean a rise in temperatures. Preversely it can create colder as well as less stable conditions. There has even been a mini ice age predicted after a recent survey discovered that water currents in the North Atlantic have 'dramatically weakened.'and are at their lowest for 1,500 years.
HIghly Concerned or High Fives?
Researchers have warned that these currents, a consequence of global warming and melting of the Greenland ice sheet, could have a 'profound effect' on both the North American and European climates. Between 1600 and 1850 AD similar weakness created a period of extreme cold when rivers such as The Thames became frozen over.
So should we be worried about our climates changing? Or should we be high-fiving if it's bringing us cold pow and epic winters for skiing?
According to Snow Forecast, Val d'Isere enjoyed 8.89m of snow, more than half as much again as its five year averages of 5.5m. Following 65 powder days during the season, Val d'Isere had a 're-opening' of non-glacier pistes and lifts in June for the first time in its 82 year history. Meanwhile, Zermatt had so much snow it had to close access because of extreme avalanche danger to road and rail routes, declaring that it was the most snow they'd had since the 1940s.
But the 2017-18 season was especially good in Europe; not because it was unusually cold but mostly because moist westerly winds prevailed with regular heavy snowfalls. The Swiss Weather Institute noted that 'although snow up high was the best in years, below 1000m it was half the average for the season'.
This snow supply was driven by very warm sea temperatures, not in the Pacific but in the North Atlantic and Baltic through autumn and early winter. And, technically, warmer water makes for more evaporation and more cloud resulting in snowfall.
The Bad News
The fact is not everywhere had as good a winter as the Alps. Riksgransen, 200km north of the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden cancelled its annual midsummer skiing, closing for the season on 27th May without even making it through to June.
And, however snowy, the Alps were actually not as cold as past winters. Yes it was, 'a winter in the mountains worthy of the 70s,' according to Serge Taboulot, Météo France, although he continues, 'The winter started at the end of November and did not finish until the end of March, but all with a certain "softness" compared to a normal winter, it is well in the general context of the warming of temperatures.'
Indeed, over the season, temperatures exceeded normal by 0.6 °C.
Météo France at a research centre at the Col de Porte, in the Chartreuse Massif, in Isère has analysed the snow since 1960 and noticed that the station has gained almost half a degree per decade and lost 14cm of snow as well.
You only have to look at the receding glaciers where the surface area has shrunk by 40 percent in the last 150 years (see La Mer de Glace, Chamonix, below, with the glacier level shown in 1990) to be convinced that winters are changing - and not for the better.
And, although 2018's summer heatwave may have been good news for European summer beach resorts, it hasn't done the winter mountain skiing ones any favours. The Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland is having a meltdown, literally. Following this summer's blistering hot temperatures, the ice is disappearing at a rate of 10cm a day. As much as 3 percent of the Aletsch is estimated to have melted this year in the heat at a rate of 90,000 litres a second at the Konkordiaplatz, south of the 4158m Jungfrau where the main part of the glacier originates.
Long Term Outlook
OK don't put your fingers in your ears because disappearing glaciers are an ominous sign for the future of skiing in the Alps. If temperatures rise more than two degrees Celsius by the end of this century as predicted unless action is taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions, then the amount of snow fall in the winter could be reduced by 70 percent.
The study published in the European Geoscience Union Journal, the Cryosphere, suggests that resorts below 1200m, around a quarter in the Alps, will have almost no continuous snow cover by 2100. Even if they have snow it'll melt quicker.
Yeah, I know, your eyes glazed over there. Of course, if you're on your one week's ski holiday all you really care about is having great snow and perfect powder and, if the temperatures are slightly warmer then, hey, a goggle tan is surely a bonus? And, anyway, what are you going to do? Boycott ski resorts that use fossil fuel? Cycle to the Alps to reduce your carbon footprint?
The Way Forward
If you want to join a cause, though, Protect Our Winters (check out our Style Altitude interview) is spreading its network, with nine European POW centres including France, Switzerland, Austria and the UK, increasing awareness of climate change and tightening the pressure on resorts to clean up or give up and become adventure parks when the snow runs out. But if we act to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius, we can limit it to 'only' 30 percent loss of snow pack, instead of the 70 percent predicted.
Going back to the start of this feature, recycling snow seems a positive step in the right green direction along with solar panels powering electricity in resorts to increase the chances of more snow for winters in the future.
And, seriously, don't burn your kit as sacrifice to the Snow God because, duh, we don't need any more fossil burning pollution. Instead consider upcycling it - turn old snowboards into skateboards, for instance, via Nok Boards.
Then count the red berries on the mountain bushes, note the quantity of nuts being stored by squirrels, do a snow dance but definitely do not buy a snow-blower.
Main Image: Severe Weather
If you want snow for winter 18-19 then, of course, the higher you go the better. But, also, take touring kit. Here are 6 tips for having a snow sure ski holiday 2019:
1) GO HIGH
Choose a higher resort with skiing above 3000m for snow cover that's a safe bet and/or with a glacier. For instance, Meribel (highest lift 3410m), Tignes /Val d'Isere (highest lift 3456m) or La Plagne (highest lift 3250m). There are ski holiday companies who specialise in high altitude resorts such as Mark Warner who offer Tignes, Val d'Isere, La Plagne plus St Anton in Austria which averages 11 metres of snow throughout the winter. Val d'Isere has the largest artificial snowmaking facilities in Europe with 900 snow cannons, another plus for snow sure skiing (if not the environment!) - and being higher it's colder and all the better for snowmaking if temperatures are unseasonably warm.
2) FACE NORTH
Check out which way the majority of slopes face as obviously north facing will stay colder longer in the season.
3) HANG ON
If you can, hang on to book your ski holiday until the last possible minute then, by looking at the forecasts, you can choose a resort that's getting nuked with fresh snow.
4) FOLLOW THE SNOW
So you booked a year in advance, your resort is low down, south-facing AND there's a snow drought. What are you going to do? Take your mountain bike? Cancel the holiday? No need if you booked with Alpine Elements who get our vote for offering Snow Assurance, the promise to change your resort in the Alps if there isn't enough snow or bus you to another resort with more lifts open.
5) DRIVE OUT
This way you can take yourself to another resort with more lifts open.
6) GO SKI TOURING
If the lifts are closed because of lack of snow, then put on your skins and go find the snow for yourself. And, even if the temperatures ARE warmer than average in mid-winter, the good news is that, so long as it's freezing overnight, you'll find classic spring snow. You're always going to find somewhere for ski touring whatever the snow conditions especially if you took Tip 5. Also, thinking really positively, there's the fact that you're not using lifts creating a carbon footprint, just a ski touring track in the snow.