The Alpine snowfall season finished just below average in the Splügen area of the Swiss Alps. Abnormally warm weather after decent snowfalls in February and March curtailed the season; mean temperatures finished over a degree warmer than average between November and April.
The figures make depressing reading for anyone who enjoys winter sports and come after a study suggested that bare Alpine slopes could become a much more common sight in the future.
I first visited this area of the Alps in 1981, returning most February half-terms, apart from 1989 when the snows failed to arrive until after Easter. The season that hastened the installation of artificial snowmaking in resorts across Europe has always left me wondering just how much snowfall has varied.
Using San Bernardino, a village at 1636m in the southwest of Grisons canton, I had a look at temperature and rainfall data back to 1999 to see what patterns were present. The figures confirm that some years see metres fall while others have barely enough to cover the pistes.
Temperatures, meanwhile, show a general upward tick from 2005-06.
While the above graphs show typical variability they don’t reveal much about month to month conditions.
Closer scrutiny of the data shows that early season dumps of over 30cm, the kind that really get the snow bases going and keep the earth below chilled for a long season, are becoming rarer. Indeed, apart from a blip in 2013/14 there have been no big early season dumps since 2009/10. The seasons are taking much longer to get going.
As the second graph shows big dumps of snow are happening later in the season. If there is not already a decent snow base these snowfalls can thaw much faster because spring sunshine has already warmed the ground.
Another way of trying to find how the climate has changed is to look at how many ‘ice days’ there were in a given period – ice days are when the maximum temperature reaches -0.1C or lower over 24hrs.
The graph below shows the past three years have been fairly constant though this season’s total of 83 is 37 days fewer than the highest total in the series, 2005-06 which clocked up 119 days.
I’ve visited many resorts in the Alps which, obviously, will be affected differently by the changing climate – the range of microclimates in the Alps is staggering.
In conclusion, considering the data and my experience, I’d say that though the Alps have definitely warmed the variability and ebb and flow of the climate means it is impossible to say with confidence that by the end of this century the slopes won’t be covered in the white stuff.
I chose San Bernardino because it is fairly central in the entire Alpine range and is also the most local SYNOP station I can find to the Valtellina range that I have been visiting most years since 1981. Any climatologists reading this would point out that my data range does not stretch back the necessary 30 years to make a judgment on the stats. If anyone can point me to a site that offers data back to 1980 I would happily update my figures and graphs.
My trip this year to Madesimo, 8 miles as the crow flies from San Bernardino, was timed just right for a dump of snow in February that followed weeks of dry weather.
The area has enjoyed some epic snowfalls over the years including 2013/14 when many found themselves snowed-in following a 2m dump of snow. The first of many snowfalls during what was an epic season.
Here is a timelapse of the huge 2m snowfall in Madesimo over Yuletide 2013