Mountain ecosystems are threatened by climate change [1
]. The projected gradual increase in atmospheric temperatures together with changes in the precipitation patterns may contribute to a decline in snow reserves [4
]. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), scenarios RCP (representative concentration pathways) 2.6 and RCP 8.5, spring snow coverage could suffer an average reduction of 7% to 25% in the Northern Hemisphere in 2100, respectively [5
The gradual disappearance of glaciers, perennial snow, and the length reduction of the snow season will affect the runoff from snow, reducing river flows and water storage and availability in the related basins [1
]. The melting of near-surface permafrost could also contribute to an increase in rockfall frequency [8
]. Additional consequences of climate change may include, e.g., the potential loss of open habitats for grassland bird species [9
], and the increase in runoff erosion led by the higher frequency of forest fires [10
One particular sector that can be negatively affected by the potential lack of natural snow, insufficient snow depth, and earlier snow melting is winter tourism. [3
]. The degree of impact of climate change on recreation activities such as alpine skiing may depend on several factors associated with the location of the resorts. These comprise, inter alia
, the type of climate, altitude, and the geographical position of the ski slopes regarding the daily sun exposition [11
]. Artificial snow is commonly used by ski resorts to face shortages of natural snow, as well as one important resource to attract visitors in a context of high competitiveness amongst resorts. This involves promoting recreational areas with significant snow coverage for the development of complementary activities to skiing (e.g., snow thematic parks and snowboarding) and winter sport events [11
]. Nevertheless, the future climate conditions may threaten the implementation of artificial snow, especially in low altitude resorts with physical and economic limitations [3
]. Resorts may have to deal with an increase in water and energy consumption, and a reduction in the number of days with low temperatures that are suitable for snow production [3
], threatening the economic viability of ski resorts.
There are various examples of studies assessing the vulnerability of snow tourism to climate change. Abegg et al. [15
] focused on the adaptation of this sector, as well as on the management of natural hazards in the region of the European Alps. They found that the winter tourism industry has already started to implement strategies to respond to climate change. Various technological and behavioral adaptation measures have been put into practice, with artificial snowmaking being the main adaptation strategy. Steiger and Abegg [16
] presented a sensitivity analysis of the Austrian ski tourism in terms of natural and artificial snow reliability according to different climate scenarios. This study showed that snowmaking is currently a very important adaptive tool to deal with climate variability and change, but also remarks the physical limits of current snowmaking technology. Demiroglu et al. [17
] focused on three resorts located in northeast Turkey by making use of a regional climate model to provide projections of changes in natural snow reliability, snowmaking capacity, and wind conditions under IPCC climate scenario RCP 4.5 and between the periods 1917–2000 and 2021–2050. Results indicate an overall decline in the frequencies of naturally snow reliable days and snowmaking capacities. However, they also stated that this particular region seems to be relatively resilient against climate change. Gilaberte-Búrdalo et al. [12
] assessed the temporal trends of various climate and snow parameters (e.g., number of days with snow depth higher than 30 cm, and number of rainy days at low elevation areas) for 11 resorts of the Spanish and Andorran Pyrenees in the period 1960–2006. Moreover, they estimated the potential temporal correlation between the studied parameters. The study concludes that the adverse effects on the ski industry of lesser snow availability may have been partially outweighed by the occurrence of fewer days of closure because of high winds, or other adverse meteorological factors. Marty et al. [18
] dealt with the impact of future emission scenarios on snow depth in several elevation levels of two catchment areas of the Swiss Alps by modeling temperature and precipitation changes. They showed that, depending on the emission scenario and elevation zone, the winter season will start half a month to one month later and will end one to three months earlier by the end of this century. The most affected elevation zone for climate change is located below 1200 m.
Regarding perceptions, Saarinen and Tervo [19
] conducted interviews with nature-based tourism entrepreneurs in Finland. Half of the interviewees did not believe that the phenomenon actually exists and would influence the region’s tourism industry in the future, so they found almost no adaptation strategies. However, other adaptation mechanisms were used to cope with the “normal” weather variation and market changes.
More focused on climate change, skiing and adaptation, Elsasser and Bürki [20
] analyzed how ski resorts adopted several adaptation strategies in the Swiss Alps from the end of the 1980s. In their view, although adaptation strategies are predominant (e.g., artificial snow production), as an industry that will be severely affected by climate change, tourism will increasingly have to focus on mitigation strategies (e.g., less greenhouse gas emissions by tourism traffic). Regarding studies focused on specific adaptation measures, Scott et al. [21
] explored the importance of snowmaking as a technical adaptation. They studied how snowmaking capacity could affect the vulnerability of the ski industry in southern Ontario (Canada) to climate variability and change. The results indicated that ski areas in the region could remain operational in a warmer climate, particularly within existing business planning and investment time horizons (into the 2020s). They pointed out the necessity of including snowmaking and other adaptation strategies in future climate change vulnerability assessments of the ski industry and winter tourism in other regions of the world.
Scott and McBoyle [22
] provided an exhaustive inventory of climate adaptation practices currently used by ski industry, including the historical development of certain key adaptations and constraints to wider use. They classified adaptation measures depending on different stakeholders: ski area operators; skiers/riders/tourists; ski industry associations; financial sector; and Government (local, state, and national). The most analyzed (and important) adaptation measures are, however, those for the ski area operators. They organized the range of adaptation practices into two main types: technological (snowmaking systems, slope development and operational practices, and cloud seeding) and business practices (ski conglomerates, revenue diversification, marketing, and indoor ski areas).
Other authors developed classifications of adaptation before the study by Scott and McBoyle [23
]. Most adaptation studies used variations of the classifications listed by these authors. Becken and Hay [26
] developed a risk-based approach to adaptation by the tourism sector, including adaptation measures for the skiing sector. Some other studies focus on a specific adaptation measure, including Hennessy et al. [27
], who analyzed the role of snowmaking in adapting to projected changes in snow conditions in Australia.
Alternative methodologies to derive proposals have also been developed: Behringer et al. [28
], for instance, used a participatory integrated assessment (PIA) to involve the knowledge, values and experiences of the various social actors in tourism and agriculture (e.g., skiers, tourism managers, and farmers) in the research process. The study tried to show the suitability of this approach to elucidate the interactions between different stakeholders as an alternative way to find adaptation measures. Beyond the analysis of adaptation measures, other studies analyzed radical adaptation measures such as totally transforming the ski activity into another one (e.g., [29
]), while others (e.g., Kaján et al. [30
]) focused on the costs of adaptation measures on nature-based winter tourism. Mulec and Wise [31
] focused on sustainable tourism opportunities respective of local conditions and communities. More focused on real adaptation programs; the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) in the United States launched a program in 2000 called “Sustainable Slopes” to adapt to and mitigate climate change. During these years, they conducted many activities to adapt to the new conditions (annual reports of their activities and achievements can be found at: http://www.nsaa.org/environment/sustainable-slopes/
Alpine skiing is a relevant tourism segment in Spain, with 31 winter resorts in operation. Spanish winter resorts, including both alpine and cross-country (or Nordic) ski resorts, had ~5.1 million visitors during 2013/2014 season, representing ~3% of the total demand of European winter resorts. France and Austria were the most visited countries with a total of 55.3 and 50.9 million visitors, respectively [32
]. In Spain, the mountain systems of Catalan and Aragon Pyrenees concentrated more than a half of the visitors.
This study aimed at assessing the vulnerability of Spanish alpine ski resorts to climate change by measuring various indicators. These are associated with the availability of natural and artificial snow, climate projections for the provinces where resorts are located, the proximity to relevant nature areas with recreation and tourism potential, and the touristic relevance of each region, here measured in terms of accommodation capacity and levels of visitation. Moreover, the study identified potential adaptation measures for the sector, and evaluated their socio-economic and environmental costs and benefits.
The article is structured as follows: Section 2
characterizes the Spanish alpine ski resorts assessed in the study. Section 3
presents regional climate projections and a vulnerability analysis of the ski resorts to climate change. Section 4
focus on potential adaptation solutions. Section 5
2. Characterization of Alpine Ski Tourism in Spain
This study assesses 31 Spanish alpine ski resorts of the following mountain systems: Catalan Pyrenees (10 resorts), Cantabrian Mountains (7), Aragonese Pyrenees (5), Central System (4), Iberian System (4), and Penibaetic System (1). These resorts are located in 11 of 17 Autonomous Communities of Spain, with Catalonia, Aragon, and Castile and León concentrating the majority of the ski sites with 10, 8, and 7 resorts, respectively. The Spanish provinces with the highest representation are Huesca and Lleida, each one with six resorts (Figure 1
and Table A1
in the Appendix
presents the main characteristics of the studied alpine ski resorts. On average, these are located between base and summit altitudes of 1655 and 2257 m. The lowest base altitude corresponds to the resort of Lunada (1300 m), whereas the highest point is located in Sierra Nevada (3300 m). Figure 2
illustrates the altitude range of the studied areas.
Resorts had 1083 ski runs in the 2014/2015 season, representing approximately 1150 km of total length and a global capacity of 470,583 skiers per hour. On average, resorts had about 35 ski runs and 37 km available for skiing. Sierra Nevada presented the highest number of ski runs (120), and Baqueira Beret had the total largest length of ski runs (153 km). In addition, the former resort presented the highest number of sold tickets in 2013/2014 (781,210), whereas the latter observed the highest number of skiers per hour (60,883). Regarding the accommodation sector, 158,252 beds were available in all resorts as well as in their surrounding areas, ranging from a minimum of 490 beds in Javalambre to a maximum of 26,663 beds in Sierra Nevada.
In terms of production of artificial snow, 4791 snow cannons were available at the beginning of 2014/2015. This represented an average of 44.5% potential coverage of artificial snow over the total ski run length, with maximum and minimum values of 100% and 3.9% for Valdelinares and Manzaneda, respectively (Figure 3
presents the mean values of the maximum snow depth (including both natural and artificial snow) observed in the resorts between the winter seasons of 2009/2010 and 2014/2015. Regarding this indicator, it is expectable to observe a higher predominance of artificial snow over the total amount of snow in the beginning of each season, and a gradual decrease of its relative weight as the most important snow precipitation periods occur in the winter season (information provided by Infonieve.es in August 2015). Values ranged from 42 cm for Manzaneda to 258 cm for Sierra Nevada, with an average of 127 cm for all the resorts.
Winter tourism is a relevant sector in Spain. The 2013/2014 season counted approximately five million visitors, distributed through more than thirty resorts located in six mountain systems of the mainland territory. This sector is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with a significant impact being associated with the degradation of the snow conditions for the practice of recreational activities.
This study assessed the vulnerability to climate change of 31 alpine ski resorts in Spain. Moreover, it evaluated the potential socio-economic and ecological effects of several adaptation measures. The studied resorts present some heterogeneity in terms of features such as altitude range, length of ski runs, accommodation capacity, maximum snow depth, and number of visitors. Artificial snow is a common resource used by the Spanish resorts, with more than 4700 cannons operating in 2014/2015.
Climate projections for the provinces where the resorts are located showed a likely increase in winter minimum temperatures and a decrease in the annual number of days with minimum temperature below 0 °C. Moreover, projections indicated a likely reduction of the winter precipitation levels, notwithstanding a potential increase in precipitation for some scenarios and provinces. Despite the uncertainty inherent in climate projections and the variability in the results provided by different models, these changes may contribute to the lower availability of natural snow and worsen the conditions for the production of artificial snow. Both aspects have negative implications for the duration of the ski seasons and the availability of suitable areas for ski practicing.
The vulnerability analysis of the ski resorts to climate change shown in this study addressed the following indicators: maximum snow depth (including both natural and artificial snow); natural snow-reliability; proximity to natural parks; proximity to special protection areas for birds (SPA); proximity to sites of community importance (SCI); available beds in the surrounding area; and number of travelers entering the provinces of the ski resorts. Results showed potential signs of a higher vulnerability for the majority of the resorts of the Cantabrian Mountains (e.g., Leitariegos, Lunada, Manzaneda), and the Iberian System (e.g., Javalambre, Valdelinares). Resorts presenting lower levels of vulnerability included Sierra Nevada from the Penibaetic mountain system, followed by Baqueira Beret and Boí Taüll, located in the Catalan Pyrenees, and Valdesquí in the Central System. One of the limitations of this analysis relies on the application of the results of a natural snow-reliability assessment of other EU mountain areas with Alpine Mediterranean climate on to the Spanish ski resorts. Moreover, the analysis did not consider potential differences among these resorts in terms of aspects such as climate conditions and geographical orientation of the ski slopes. Accordingly, the study has space for improvement, notably by working with climate models fitted to a spatial scale closer to those of the resorts, leading to a better assessment of both natural and artificial snowmaking potential.
One of the main contributions of this study was obtaining empirical evidence by assessing the Spanish case. Following a literature analysis focused on the adaptation to climate change by the winter tourism sector of various world regions, the study characterized various adaptation measures for the context of Spain with the support of real data and opinions from key stakeholders. Ten adaptation measures were assessed: artificial snow production, technological innovation, implementation of nocturnal skiing, protection and conservation of the snowpack, diversification of snow-based activities, expansion of skiable area, public and private economic assistance and management solutions, transformation of the ski resorts into multi-recreational mountain resorts, redefinition of the local economic model, and marketing strategies. Similar to the inventory provided by Scott and McBoyle [22
], these measures are more intended for ski area operators, despite also including other stakeholders (e.g., local government, financial sector). The knowledge about the potential level of vulnerability of ski resorts to climate change may contribute to the definition of the most adequate adaptation measures [11
]. Resorts with higher levels of vulnerability would need to better assess the potential use and feasibility of snowmaking technology as the main adaptation option in the medium and long term. This type of strategy is very well documented in the consulted literature (e.g., [15
]), which also remarks its potential socio-economic and environmental impact and physical limitations. Taking the example of the resort of Leitariegos, where the artificial snow coverage over total length of runs reaches only 3.9%, the decision on whether invest in snowmaking equipment will benefit from the analysis of climate change impact. Resorts classified with this level may have to consider adopting structural adaptation strategies such as the transformation of ski resorts into multi-recreational mountain resorts, or the redefinition of the local economic model.
On the contrary, resorts with lower levels of vulnerability may rely on a combination of technical (e.g., production of artificial snow, and conservation of the snowpack) and structural solutions (e.g., diversification of snow-based activities).
The design and implementation of adaptation strategies must aim to minimize their potential socio-economic and environmental costs. Measures adopted with the purpose of exclusively maintaining the operation of resorts as winter tourism destinations, inter alia, the production of artificial snow, expansion of skiable areas, or the public economic assistance to resorts, raise various environmental and social aspects of concern. Some examples include the degradation of water resources, and local fauna and flora, as well as the misuse of public funds. Moreover, this study considered that resorts located in areas experiencing—out migration and population ageing have to integrate these factors in the definition of structural adaptation strategies aimed at redefining the local economic model. This issue has to be considered not only at the level of regional and national policies but also at the EU-level (e.g., under the scope of Community Strategic Guidelines for Rural Development and Cohesion Policy) [45