Zermatt, in Switzerland, is home to one of the most famous ski resorts in the world. The carbon footprint of skiing has generated much discussion, and those passionate about participating in the sport have had to grapple with the harm to the environment which sometimes results. Zermatt gained fame for its environmental measures to make its ski resorts “greener.” Some of the ways through which the environmental impacts of skiing can be negative are (1) transportation, (2) effects on local ecosystems, and (3) artificial snowmaking. Bronislaw Szerszynski’s concept of “ecological irony” is a particularly useful lens with which to view these harms and the approach to them, both by individual skiers and by ski companies such as Zermatt.
Tom Koppel’s 2015 article, “The eco-village that will change the way you see ski towns,” reveals that in a ski resort town known as Zermatt in Switzerland, the citizens voted to ban most cars in 1966, in what was both a prudent and prescient move for both the environment and skiing. Many discussions of environmental measures today focus on what to do about cars and other combustion vehicles, and settle on some form of phasing out the cars in favor of some form of public transportation service.
Those involved and invested in ski tourism often must grapple with the effects their enthusiasm for skiing has on the environment around them. Mark Stoddart has discussed Szerszynski’s concept of “ecological irony” in his 2011 article, “Grizzlies and Gondolas,” to refer to skiing participants who have “a high level of commitment to environmental values, but are simultaneously reflective about skiing’s negative environmental impacts.” These skiers care about the environment very much (or they believe themselves to do so) and this is not always easy to reconcile with skiing’s part in driving up global warming and pollution. Stoddart also noted, in his book Making Meaning Out of Mountains, that some skiers try to reconcile this by ride-sharing cars when they drive to a ski resort, and some have used Smart cars to burn less fuel.
The largest factor in skiing’s part in driving up global warming and pollution is, naturally, the fuel exhaust from the cars and airplanes that skiers use to get to various resorts. This is one of the pitfalls of the ski tourism industry, but it is one that Zermatt managed to get ahead of back in 1966 with its strict limitations on cars. (Sidenote: Although they’re in the same location and have many similarities across the board, Zermatt the town is not, precisely, Zermatt the ski resort. It does not appear that the ban in Zermatt the town on cars was initially or directly motivated by a desire to make skiing more environmentally safe. Zermatt the ski resort began to pay attention to environmental measures in 2002, but was helped in this greatly by the 1966 car ban.) The measures put forth by Zermatt (both the town and the resort) cover ground that the half-measures Stoddart describes cannot. Firstly, visitors must arrive into Zermatt by train; and secondly, they cannot arrive into the Zermatt resort by car. These measures have the potential to be more beneficial for the environment.
It may seem harsh to describe the actions taken by the skiers Stoddart has described as “half-measures,” but nonetheless: If skiers are aware of pollution problems with skiing and automobility and they reduce those problems by ride-sharing (for example), this is well and good, but they are still using combustion vehicles to get to the ski resorts. In essence, this skier is constrained by what Stoddart describes as the “path dependence” of “established automobile networks,” i.e. due to the extensive history of human reliance on combustion automobiles, that form of automobility is systematically entrenched enough that it’s difficult to escape entirely. The case of the skier who brought the Smart car is slightly more complicated; Stoddart mentioned that skier at least eight years ago, and the company that makes Smart cars dropped combustion engines entirely less than four years ago. (This is a situation where the effectiveness of the skier at minimizing his negative impact on the environment depends more on the environmental consciousness of the car company than on any other factor.) The combustion-vehicle ban can achieve more because it attacks the problem of climate change through a systemic change framework, and what Stoddart describes is individual people moderating their individual behavior to acclimate to environmental necessities.
Zermatt’s primary motivation for its ban on combustion vehicles is to prevent their view of the Matterhorn from being obscured by air pollution. As a result, even Zermatt’s public transportation often does not depend on combustion. Its shuttles are battery-powered, and electric taxis take guests from the train station (an electric cog railway) from which all tourists enter the town to their respective hotels.
While cars and airplanes are the biggest negative contributor to the environment as part of ski resorts, other issues also bear addressing as they are not the only negative contributors.
The large influx of tourist skiers at various ski resorts (including and especially those in the European Alpine mountain ranges) has been noted to have a negative effect on local vegetation by Jane Bradbury and an invasive effect upon local animal life by (Raphaël) Arlettaz et al. Zermatt has declared several protected areas reserved for wildlife and plants as a response to this. It has declared that six forests and ten sanctuaries are to be off-limits for ski tourists and free from any bushwhacking. [I have not been able to determine how unique they are in this.]
Zermatt still uses a snowmaking machine, of which climate scientists are generally at best skeptical regarding their effectiveness for more environmental initiatives. The study done by Evette et al. runs through some of the objections. Ski resorts that use snowmaking machines often take highly mineralized water from the mountain reservoirs, and when that water runs off the mountain it gets into and pollutes the groundwater. Additionally, the snowmaking machines are very energy intensive. The Zermatt website says that their water is of the finest quality and it is such because it has been purified through “very short” water-supply pipes, and that the water does not pick up minerals outside of the rock through which the water already flows.
This does not, however, answer questions about the footprint of their snowmaking process. Zermatt’s “snowmaker” advertises its usage of a Vacuum Ice Maker (VIM) process which is said to use one-fifth as much energy as the snowmaking machines used by other ski resort companies. This claim, however, is not one that has been independently verified and there is a generally a dearth of information to be found on this in ScienceDirect, JSTOR, EBSCO, and other databases. Additionally, the energy-intensive nature of the snowmaking process alone may help cement environmentalist opposition to having the snowmaking machine around, as does the Zermatt resort’s apparent lack of transparency on this.
This apparent lack of transparency is, in fact, emblematic of Szerszynski’s “ecological irony.” When Stoddart described it, he was referring to ski resorts which claimed a strong environmental focus but refuse to acknowledge their own parts in how their connections to “automobility” and “aeromobility” networks contribute to the ecological damage. However, exhaust and combustion vehicles are not the only way that Szerszynski’s irony can manifest with respect to ski resorts. In this case, Zermatt claims a strong environmental sustainability focus – and backs it up in some respects: The car ban and combustion vehicle ban are genuinely useful, advantageous measures that will only increase in necessity going forward. Nonetheless, they have not been forthcoming about the process or the justification of their claims about the 5x energy efficiency increase of their snowmaking machine. Claiming a reduction in usage of power use of 80% compared to machines used by other resorts is quite a specific claim and they should be able to back it up.
The environmentalist argument against Zermatt’s claims is given in this environment blog post from October 2017 (https://www.environmentblog.net/skiing-and-the-environment/). If Zermatt is of such a high altitude and it has a glacier that is frozen solid and ready for skiing every day of the year, why do they need the VIM process? The answer is that Zermatt is affected by climate change (this is mentioned in Andrew Denning’s Skiing into Modernity) and the rising temperatures exacerbate the already inconsistent winter season. The alternative is to potentially go out of business. Zermatt is a town with a relatively small local population (less than 6,000 people at the last count) and they receive close to 2 million visitors per year (on average that means on any given day about 5,400 tourists are in the city). These numbers are not evenly spread out, and the days with the largest number of visitors are in the wintertime. Sometimes there are as many as 35,000 or 40,000 visitors (usually around the end of December). Given the ratio of tourists to local population, the ski industry is absolutely critical to pull in revenue. (The dynamic where artificial snow became a required necessity for a resort to handle the inconsistent timing of the winter seasons was described in John Fry’s The Story of Modern Skiing). There is a significant paradoxical conundrum here, as the snowmaking machines themselves are an expensive endeavor, with respect to both financial cost and to energy use; this, too, contributes to global rising temperatures.
This potentially infinite loop describes another “ecological irony,” but not one like Szerszynski or Stoddart have described: Artificial snowmaking will become more relied upon as the effects of global climate change increase, but that in itself, will move up the timetable on rising temperatures. This will hasten a day when the artificial snowmaking machines have no effect (above 2.5 °C, they will simply fail to function). That may sound very apocalyptic, but there may be solutions to this conundrum. In a November 2019 interview with Wired, Dr. Elizabeth Burakowski articulates many of the previous criticisms of the artificial snowmaking process which Zermatt and many other ski resorts are so reliant upon, and adds “it’s an adaptation strategy only… not mitigation.” She argues that many of the problems with snowmaking machines can be resolved if they are made to be more reliable on renewable energies. Zermatt, accordingly, has made presentable progress on this issue as well, as the resort’s solar panel network accounts for approximately 70% of the power used by both the resort and the town. This is a positive, yet improvements could be made if solar panel usage was increased and if Zermatt could demonstrate the renewability of their snowmaking tech, as well. Additionally, although electric alternatives should be preferred whenever possible, skiing companies should be aware of the possibilities of pollution of groundwater if too much water is taken from mountain reservoirs as part of the process (this will be a consistent worry after “greener” alternatives for snowmaking are established as well).
This blog post may seem like it comes down a bit harshly on Zermatt. After all, in many ways they are taking the specter of global anthropogenic climate change seriously and are taking many sensible precautions! I share criticisms, however, because I am impressed with policies such as the car ban. Stoddart has stated that he believes that Szerszynski’s “ecological irony” can be a positive good when conceiving methods by which problems such as pollution could be addressed; heightening the contradiction of the pro-environmental image and the practical effects of the company’s actions can be a way to push the company in the direction of improvement. In the case of Zermatt, it could be doubly effective as Zermatt has shown it is willing to tackle environmental questions in many other ways.
Arlettaz et al. “Impacts of Outdoor Winter Recreation on Alpine Wildlife and Mitigation Approaches: A Case Study of the Black Grouse.” The Impacts of Skiing on Mountain Environments 2013, pg.137-154.
Baraniuk, Chris. “Melting ski resorts are developing a fatal addiction to snow machines.” Wired UK, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/snow-machines-ski-resorts. Modified 30 November 2019, Accessed 29 April 2021.
Bradbury, Jane. “Skiing Threatens Alpine Vegetation.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment June 2005, Vol. 3, No. 5 (June 2005), pg. 239
Denning, Andrew. Skiing into Modernity: a Cultural and Environmental History. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015.
Evette et al. “Environmental risks and impacts of mountain reservoirs for artificial snow production in a context of climate change.” Revue de géographie alpine 99-4, 2011. DOI: 10.4000/rga.1481
(note: what is here is an English translation of the original French)
Fry, John. The Story of Modern Skiing. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2006.
Koppel, Tom. “The eco-village that will change the way you see ski towns.” The Globe and Mail, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/travel/destinations/the-eco-village-that-will-change-the-way-you-see-ski-towns/article23113459/ Modified 20 February 2015. Accessed 28 April 2021.
Muchacho, Michael. “Sustainability and Holiday Destinations: The Zermatt Case.” SnowBrains, https://snowbrains.com/sustainability-as-an-attraction/. Modified 6 December 2019. Accessed 27 April 2021.
Schmidt, John G. (editor). Alpine Environment: Geology, Ecology, and Conservation. New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2011.
“Skiing and the environment” [author not listed]. Environment Blog, https://www.environmentblog.net/skiing-and-the-environment/. Modified 30 October 2017. Accessed 21 April 2021.
Stoddart, Mark C.J. “Grizzlies and Gondolas: Animals and the Meaning of Skiing Landscapes in British Columbia, Canada.” Nature and Culture Spring 2011, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring 2011), pg. 41-63
Stoddart, Mark C.J. Making Meaning Out of Mountains: the Political Ecology of Skiing. Vancouver, B.C. : UBC Press, 2012
Willibald et al. “Vulnerability of ski tourism towards internal climate variability and climate change in the Swiss Alps.” Science of the Total Environment 784 (2021) 147054.