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Global Warming and the Alpine Slopes

If current global warming trends continue, half of all Alpine ski resorts could be forced to close over the next 50 years, according to a recent report released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The report predicts that the Alps' snow line will rise 985 feet, to 5,900 feet. Many of the Alps' most popular resorts—including Gstaad, Switzerland—lie below this level.

Faced with the potential loss of billions of tourism dollars, owners of threatened resorts are planning so-called "second generation" ski resorts on the Alps' highest peaks and glaciers—areas they hope will remain above the ascending snow line for at least a little while longer. And they are forging ahead despite strict local laws that forbid such expansion—for environmental reasons. In the Tirol region of Austria, for example, a consortium of developers and local lift owners has already successfully lobbied the government to relax restrictions, paving the way for two big projects. One, on the Gepatsch glacier, will allow visitors to ski at up to 11,480 feet; the other, at Fernerkogel, will open up the high-altitude peaks between Pitztal and Otztal.

Environmental groups such as the Austrian Alpine Association have vowed to fight. Higher-altitude regions are more threatened by pollution, says Rolf Bürki, a climate expert at the University of Zürich and coauthor of the UNEP report, because pollution doesn't break down easily at higher, colder altitudes."If you throw away a banana peel at eight thousand feet," Bürki says, "it will still be there in twenty years."

Michel Revaz of the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps worries that the Tirol government's move will spark a dangerous game of one-upmanship among European ski resorts, prompting other regions to relax their restrictions in order to ensure that resorts in their own backyard remain competitive. "Now that it's happened in Austria, all the others will want to do the same," he says.

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