Behind the Snow: We chat to a mountain designer

Image: N. Joly / Les Gets OT

By Amie Henderson

Give or take a few millennia, the Alps were born 770 million years ago when the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided and caused a violent upheaval in the earth’s crust. That’s the short story anyway, but I bet you don’t think about the undulations and formulations as you’re cruising down Prolays. Carlo Carmagnola does. Carlo is part of a company called Dianeige and they work with ski resorts around the world to plan the sustainable development of pistes and mountain areas, helping to manage them in a more environmentally friendly way.


Carlo, your job is to help ski areas maximise their snow coverage during the winter season. What does this involve?

Basically, we run numerical simulations using a detailed snowpack model (Météo-France’s SURFEX/Crocus). This model allows different scenarios to be simulated, such as the response of the snow cover to warmer meteorological conditions during spring, or the effect of ski slopes, aspects and altitudes on the amount of solar radiation hitting the snow surface. We are then able to compute, for each sector of a given ski area, the amount of snow that we can expect during the season. Of course, there is a lot of inter-annual variability, but it is still possible to identify some thresholds in terms of snow mass. In the end, we can provide stakeholders with a better understanding of the snow conditions in their ski resort, answering different important questions: which part of the ski area is most sensitive to melting? Is the snow making system well “sized”? How the grooming techniques can be improved? And so on.


Les Gets Ski Resort

Photo: N. Joly

How is the volume of snow we receive in the French Alps changing? And should be we concerned about these changes?

The amount of snow we receive in the French Alps is undoubtedly changing. Beside the normal spatial and inter-seasonal variability, it is clear that the mean snow cover is reducing almost everywhere since the end of the 1980’s, especially during fall and at low-middle altitudes. Indeed, even if we do not observe a significant trend on the amount of precipitation, higher air temperatures will shift the zero isotherm level, leading to more liquid (rain) than solid precipitation (snow). For instance, the Col de Porte meteorological station (Chartreuse range, 1325m) has recorded a loss of 13cm per decade since 1950, related to a warming of 0.3°C per decade. Climate projections in the French Alps for the period 2020-2050 show a reduction in snow cover (depth and duration) ranging from 10% to 60% at 1200-1800m. The incertitude is very large, but the trend is quite clear. In order to face these changing conditions, ski resorts will have to adapt quickly, extending in particular their snowmaking network (in France, only 29% of the ski slopes are equipped with snow guns, against 65% in Austria and 80% in Italy) and improving their techniques of preparation of ski slopes.

If there’s to be less snow in future years, how can science help? Is the answer simply to create more artificial snow? What other options do we have?

The first answer is to create more machine-made snow. For example, if we look at the last winter season, characterised by a lack of snow until January, only ski slopes at high altitude (above 2000-2200m) or those equipped with snowmaking systems opened during the Christmas holidays. Thirty years ago, with the same meteorological conditions, virtually no ski resort could have opened. However, creating more artificial snow is not the only answer. Slope earthwork during summer (to create a proper, flat ground surface) allows resorts to better catch and conserve the snow. Snow fences can be installed in windy areas, in order to stock more wind-drifted snow. Optimising the grooming techniques is also extremely important to retain the snow cover as long as possible during the ski season. Only creating a perfect synergy between all these different elements, ski resorts will be able to survive in the long term.


Morzine Family Skiing

Themed ski areas are great for families and kids. Photo: Sylvian Cochard

Do you currently work with any resorts in the Portes du Soleil? Are there any new developments you can tell us about?

Our branch office Kaliblue has recently made a new ski map for the resorts in the Portes du Soleil, as well as a map for summer leisure activities (biking, trekking). A new development I would like to talk you about, even if it’s not yet installed in the Portes du Soleil, is our Skiflux system. It’s a small device equipped with an infrared beam that we install on the ski slopes to measure the fluxes of skiers. Knowing the skier attendance on each slope is extremely useful: with this information, we are able to redirect skiers towards less-frequented areas using dynamic LED screens, reducing the over-saturation of the slopes.

Themed ski areas such as half pipes, modules, family areas, etc. are becoming increasingly popular in ski resorts. Why do you think this is? And how do you assist with this?

Holiday makers really like themed ski areas indeed! Every skier and snowboarder should be able to find an area up to their expectations: professional freestylers will seek half-pipes and high kicks, whereas children will enjoy themed tracks. A ski resort should diversify its offer in order to satisfy every kind of customer. At Dianeige, we’ve designed new snow parks, ski-crosses, border-crosses and leisure areas since 2004. Along with slope planning and designing, this is our core business.


Avoriaz Snow Parks

Snow parks, boardercross courses and halfpipes all count as themed ski areas, too. Photo: Virginie Dupé

Ski areas are now concerned with summer activities too. Do you play any role in this?

For mountain resorts, diversifying the touristic offer throughout the year is becoming more and more important. For this reason, Dianeige is involved in planning new ski resort infrastructures for summer activities. In our four-season Master Plan, we often include golf, paragliding, zip lines, tubing, roller skiing, etc. Compared to other Alpine countries, in France there still needs to be a great deal of catching-up if the objective of offering attractive, four-season resorts is to be achieved.

For more information on Dianeige and what they do, check out their website HERE.
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