BERLIN — When I saw news photos of the bare slopes of the Alps’ storied ski resorts a few weeks ago, I felt relief. The green and brown mountains of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria, where my family has skied at the Garmisch Classic ski resort for years, were a dismal sight, yes. But the snowless scene also warmed my heart: I had an excuse not to take my 12-year-old son downhill skiing during his school break.
This winter, as accelerating climate breakdown collides with inflation and Europe’s worst energy crisis since the 1970s, a downhill skiing trip presents an acute moral quandary for parents. Patronizing a dying industry that contributes so much to environmental collapse right at the moment we are finally beginning to turn away from fossil fuels feels absurd. But do I have the will to deny my child the pleasure of a winter sport in what could be its final seasons?
The paucity of snow across the European Alps, a phenomenon that has worsened distinctly since the early 1970s, is almost surely a consequence of global heating. Temperatures in this region are rising at twice the rate of the global average, year-round glaciers are receding steadily, forests are drying out and high-altitude plant life is going extinct.
Paradoxically, the ski industry and its patrons are contributing to the sport’s own demise. Snowmaking machines, now standard at all but the smallest facilities, blast out man-made crystals at a volume that can exceed 100 gallons of water per minute from water reserves severely diminished by consecutive dry summers. The less natural snow there is, the more the electricity-powered snow cannons are employed. Without the Garmisch Classic resort’s more than 200 snow guns, which cover nearly two-thirds of its 25 miles of runs, its business would almost certainly be untenable.
There’s an independent campaign called Ski Flight Free that claims that the bulk of the carbon footprint of a ski holiday comes from the journey to the slopes: the flights or the long car trips from Milan, Berlin or Prague. The campaign exhorts people to travel instead by train or bus, which both have far lower emissions than automobiles and airplanes. Although my son and I do take the train to the German Alps from Berlin, this only makes me feel marginally better. We’re still part of the bigger circus.
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This year, there is an additional concern: Germany and most of Central Europe are locked in an energy standoff with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who has cut our gas supply, forcing everyone to scrimp and conserve.
Many in Germany and across Europe are taking fewer and shorter and colder showers, wearing long johns in the chilly mornings, heating and lighting only the rooms that we are using. Many companies have throttled back production, public swimming pools are closed or several degrees colder than usual and a lot of city lighting is off, including the showcase windows in Berlin’s posh shopping district.
Everyone’s more frugal use of energy will help Germany make it through the winter without blackouts or industrial stoppages — hopefully denying Mr. Putin a victory and showing Ukraine that we’re with them. But most important, the less we rely on fossil fuels, the smaller our carbon footprint will be and the faster Europe can transition to a low carbon economy.
Some of the resorts in the Alps sense the mood of willing self-sacrifice, and have announced that lifts will tick up the mountains at slower speeds and seat heaters are no-gos. I’m not sure who this will fool, though.
Of course, downhill isn’t the only type of skiing, and snowshoeing is an option, too. But my son loves the speed and thrill of flying down a mountain. My wife and I plan to return to cross-country trails in the nearby Czech Republic once he has left the nest, but we know that trying to interest him in the sublime beauty of gliding through Bohemian pine forests is simply a losing battle.
Lately, snow has begun to fall across Europe. The Alps will have a ski season, though probably one of the shortest ever. Most of the trails in Garmisch Classic are open.
Tuning in to the latest weather maps, my son is hopping up and down in anticipation of charging down the slopes — as I once did as a kid in upstate New York. It might be one of his last chances: before the climate crisis deprives the Alps and the Northeast’s ski resorts of enough snow for satisfying skiing. In the end, I know I won’t be able to bring myself to deny him the same opportunities that I had, even though climate change one day will.
Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer.
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