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Alpine resorts feel the heat

By Dean Irvine for CNN
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(CNN) -- Traditionally the ski season really gets underway in Europe this weekend, but record warm temperatures means that the sight of verdant green slopes and blooming alpine flowers will be more common than snow-ploughing skiers.

Resorts across the Alpine region have had to postpone opening and even those that are open have a limited number of usable slopes.

Val d'Isere, one of the most famous ski runs, had to cancel its World Cup downhill and Super G skiing events on Wednesday.

Organizers have had to deal with late snows before, but this is only the fifth time in half a century that they have had to cancel an event.

Many meteorologists and scientists say that a single warm winter is all part of the natural variations of an unpredictable climate, but a new climatic survey has reported that Europe's Alpine region is now warmer than at any other time since the Middle Ages, so could the current conditions be a taste of things to come?

"We are now experiencing the warmest period (for this season) in the past 1,300 years," said Reinhard Boehm, chief climatologist at Austria's Central Institute for Meteorology and Geo-Dynamics in Vienna.

He cited a study by a group of European climatic institutes that reconstructed more than a millennium of weather patterns in a region ranging from France's Rhone Valley in the west to Hungary in the east, and from Germany's Nuremberg area in the north to Italy's Tuscany in the south.

The report blames industrial pollution from the 19th century for climate change from the mid-20th century, although the recent warming trend set in about 20 years ago from the cumulative use of fossil fuels giving off clear greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide.

"This has led to ever higher temperatures since the 1980s and the models indicate that it's going to get even warmer in future," Boehm said.

Across the region average temperatures have been around two degrees higher than the seasonal norm, with temperatures in Austria reaching 18 degrees Celsius -- nearly 20 degrees higher than the monthly average.

Coping with the warmer conditions has been a challenge and even the now familiar method of covering over the mountain pastures with snow cannons has been difficult.

Wilma Himmelfreundpointner, deputy director of the St. Anton Tourist Office, said the resort can usually cover 80 percent of its slopes using snowmaking machines, but mild temperatures and sunshine have made that impossible this season.

"What can you do? One can't change the weather," Himmelfreundpointner said.

Resorts have had to diversify and offer more summer-oriented pursuits, such as hiking and glaciers skiing.

But even high altitude skiing on glaciers is under threat in the long-term, as Alpine glaciers are receding. As part of the wider trend of milder European winters, December pollen is troubling asthma sufferers as far north as Scandinavia.

"This year is likely to be the fifth warmest worldwide since records began," David Viner, senior climate scientists at the University of East Anglia told Reuters.

"The overall picture of a warming planet with a 'noisy' trend is quite consistent," he said.

There would be some up sides for warmer Alpine winters, with longer growing seasons and opportunity for more productive agriculture at higher altitudes.

But for the economy of the region, it would be a disaster.

Low altitude resorts, those below 1,500 meters could become completely redundant because of declining snowfall and rising temperatures. In Italy over half the winter sports resorts are below 1,300 meters.

Even if the prognosis is gloomy, locals from resorts across the Alps are remaining positive that the snows will soon return.

Forecasts for the weekend predict snowfall at least for the higher areas, and many are clinging to the hope that, as in previous years when the snows have failed to fall in early December, January has often been a bumper month.

The multi-million dollar ski industry has yet to face up to the possibility of reduced winter sports and in impact on the local economies.

Generally, bookings for the season ahead are healthy. Nick Newell, who runs a ski chalet in the French resort of La Tania told the BBC that bookings were "up by 10 percent on last year, and pretty much chock-a-block for the rest of the season."

Snow no show - the weather at the French winter sports resort of Chamrousse was almost balmy at the beginning of December.





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