It is extremely easy to forget the impact imposed by skiing on the mountain environments. Most people believe the only effect that they have on the environment within mountain regions are the tracks in the snow left by their skis. However, there is strong evidence that skiing has both a social and more noticeably, environmental impacts that influence the natural environment. Some experts of the Alpine region suggest that tourists directly affect over half of the Alps entire surface area. It can therefore be stated that the Alps are now one of the most threatened mountain ecosystems on Earth. This viewpoint was further backed up by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, chairman of Alp Action, based in Geneva, which works towards preserving and restoring the Alpine habitat, saying that “tourists have merely transported the problems of the city up 6,500 feet”.
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As the majority of ski slopes take place on the sides of large, rugged mountains, the process of deforestation is required in order to create the downhill ski slopes. Deforestation can lead to the displacement of the natural habitats of resident birds as well as cause an increase in the surface runoff from the melt water flowing down the mountains once the snow has melted in the summer months. The problem of surface runoff is further increased by the alteration of the grade of the slope in order to make it suitable for skiers. This allows the melt water to flow quicker and results in the melt water coming into contact with few obstacles which can eventually lead to landslides. Other wildlife such as ibex, snow hares, and red deer are also affected by deforestation and the alteration of the slope’s grade. Wildlife is initially affected by the development and expansion of the ski resorts, however, the human impact on wildlife can also be seen in the construction and maintenance of the ski runs in the night time and by the numerous skiers during the daytime. An example of the affects on wildlife is the black grouse which resides in the Alps, Wales, Scotland and the Lake District. As a result of skiing, the black grouse now exists at only half its usual population density around ski resorts. However, the disturbance area is increasing in size as more and more people ski off-piste and intrude into the habitat of the black grouse.
When examining the visual impacts of skiing on the mountain environment, it is easy to see that the monstrous metallic pylons which support the ski lifts and the ski lift terminals blemish the previously unscarred panoramic views. The implications of all of the developments within the mountain environment results in a snowballing affect and results in increased pressure on the environment. With the rise in popularity of some resorts such as Tignes and the Trois Vallées in France, there is the added pressure of expansion of the resorts and the improvement of its facilities. The ski resorts are mainly built on confined valley floor areas and are therefore hemmed in by the surrounding mountainous environment. However, the need to accommodate the increasing numbers and demands of tourists means that resorts have had to expand resulting in further erosion of the mountain sides.
The impact of skiers on the environment can be seen due to the increased problems of global warming within these areas. Over the past few years, scientists have proved that the snow levels in mountain areas such as the Alps in Europe have started to dwindle. Birgit Ottmer from the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research based in the famous resort of Davos said that the “Alpine areas below 1,600 metres are now receiving twenty per cent less snow”. The future is even more unpromising with Michel Revaz of the Liechtenstein-based Alpine conservation society Cipra, stating that “within fifty years all ski resorts below 1,200 metres won’t have a chance and will go out of business”. This is especially unwelcoming news for the majority of the ski resorts within Austria where seventy-five per cent of all of the ski lifts lie below 1,000 metres. The problem of snow levels has meant that new resorts are springing up further and further up the sides of the mountains. This migration of ski resorts will mean further visual impacts on the area with large accommodation blocks and pylons being erected further upland as well as an increase in the human affects on the higher altitude areas which have a more sensitive ecosystem.
It is widely believed that aviation travel currently contributes about four per cent of the global carbon dioxide emissions. This is a worrying fact, especially when over thirty million international tourists fly into the Alpine region each year and the fact that Alpine tourism is only second in the world to the Mediterranean coast in the number of visiting tourists per annum. Once arrived in the Alpine region, the vast amounts of tourists generally reach the ski resorts by vehicles or even coaches supplied by the travel agencies. The increasing presence of vehicles within this environment has led to an increase in carbon emissions from the vehicles. Within some areas of the Alps, the pollutants reach the upland coniferous trees. Once this has happened, the pollutants weaken the evergreen trees which then become susceptible to insects and parasites. The United Nations recently carried out a study on the affects humans have on the mountain forests and discovered that acid rain and air pollution have damaged approximately sixty per cent of the Swiss, Italian, German and Austrian alpine forests.
Another human impact which can be related to global warming is the retreat of the glaciers worldwide. Many skiers and snow boarders enjoy the thrill of skiing or snow boarding on glaciers. The tour guides usually put a great emphasis on the environment and the affects of humans on the mountain environment during the excursion; however, these tours may cease to exist in the near future with the retreat of the mountain glaciers. For example, Boulder Glacier in the North American state of Washington, is extremely popular with climbers, skiers and snow boarders. However, such activities have an increasingly short life as the glacier retreated an incredible four hundred and fifty metres between 1987 and 2005. The retreat of the glacier can be directly linked to the rise in the winter temperatures and to the reduction in snowfall levels within this region.
There is an increasing problem with the amount of litter in the ski resorts. As is true anywhere else in the world, the majority of litter dropped does not degrade straight away or at all. However, in such a sensitive or delicate region, like the Alps, the effects are amplified. For instance an orange peel takes approximately two years to fully degrade, and cigarette butts can take up to five years to disintegrate. The chocolate wrappers or left over lunch that is left outside the mountain restaurants attract species which would not normally be found at such high altitudes. This alteration in the fragile ecosystem has a huge affect on the indigenous population of wildlife which eventually die out due to the invasive species.
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However, tourism can help sustain the mountain communities. The tourists provide a market for the local communities. There are over four and a half million beds for tourists within the Alps. The local communities have set up bed and breakfast accommodation as well as hostels and small, traditional hotels or chalets. This provides a vital economy for the local population even though the busiest periods are only during the winter months. Upon seeing that the majority of their business is seasonal, many of the locals in the ski resorts and surrounding villages have begun to diversify in order to sustain a living throughout the year. The local population have begun to offer summer outdoor activities to try and attract thrill-seeking or nature-loving tourists in the summer months. Many of those within the mountain communities offer guiding walks in the summer or activities such as rock climbing and driving off road vehicles through the rough terrain. The local authorities for ski resorts have only recently started to publicise visiting mountain areas in the summer months and are trying to advertise the ski resorts and villages as year-round destinations instead of solely winter locations.
Tourism can help sustain human communities if the right methods are introduced by the local authorities, for example by ensuring that the local populations get their share of the money brought in by tourists so that the larger international tourism firms do not overpower the local businesses. This might include, the local authorities supporting local brands or shops and only allowing a certain number of international businesses or hotels into the region.
Many learning schemes have also been introduced in order for the local population to learn other languages such as English in order to accommodate and to improve on the services provided to tourists visiting their town or village. Teaching the locals languages will help them both socially and economically and could even lead to their customers returning or attracting new customers by word of mouth due to the level of customer service. Having a second language allows local people who know the area and its surrounding environment best, to supply more annual activities such as guided walks. This will keep the economy within the area and result in a small rise in the prosperity of the local population.
In conclusion, I believe that skiing is not a sustainable activity and has greater impacts on the mountain environment than it does improve it. The affects on the environment are detrimental and could mean that future generations will not be able to go and look at the Mont-Blanc Glacier in its current beauty but will be able to admire at it from text books due to its possible demise. However, I do have confidence in the fact that tourism can play a large role in sustaining and improving the local human communities and makes the mountain areas an extremely exciting and diverse area which is why so many people visit it each year.
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