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Battle over blankets shielding glaciers from sun

A Swiss ski resort's use of  giant thermal blanket to protect glacial snow is helping the company but drawing criticism from an environmental group that wants a different approach.
To accompany feature ENVIRONMENT VERBIER
This blanket was installed on the Gurschen glacier at Switzerland's Andermatt ski resort in May 2005. A second resort is now trying the same tactic to combat warmer summers.Str / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Global warming may be the last thing on the minds of extreme skiers speeding down the blustery cliff faces at Verbier-4 Vallees this winter.

But looking down from the chic Swiss ski resort’s 10,800-foot peak, Eric Balet, whose company runs the ski lifts, says climate change has become a business concern.

The Tortin glacier topping Verbier used to stretch to the base of ski lifts and other paths, but Balet now has to use heavy machinery every autumn to move snow to fill gaps left from the ice formation’s steady retreat.

“Only five to 10 years ago we didn’t need any additional snow from the glacier,” said Balet, director general of Televerbier.

In spring last year, to save surging fuel and other costs from moving the snow, he opted to cover up 26,900 square feet on the glacier’s edge with a thin insulating sheet to try to slow the melting.

The project -- inspired when staff noticed some snow lasted throughout the summer under a tarpaulin-covered snowmobile -- worried environmentalists, but Balet deemed it a success.

Fantastic or ugly?
“Everyone thought it was completely crazy,” he said, standing on the slopes amid a throng of skiers. “But the results are fantastic.”

By September, a snowbank eight feet high had survived under the synthetic insulating sheet that Balet said acted “like a parasol.” This summer, he hopes to repeat the effort, this time covering an area nearly four times as large.

Environmental groups aren’t convinced.

Pro Natura, Switzerland’s branch of Friends of the Earth, says the country’s protected landscapes should be left alone.

“It simply looks totally ugly,” Baet Jans, Pro Natura’s head of policy, said in a telephone interview. “What we ask is that they should go through a legal process if they do that, that they should open it to the public.”

Televerbier has contested the need to receive official permission to lay down the filament made by Swiss company Fritz Landolt, which also supplied material for a similar project at the Andermatt ski resort last year.

Balet said the material, which is blue on the bottom and white on top, does not damage the environment and can help slow the effects of temperature increases that some scientists say will eventually melt Europe’s Alpine glaciers.

Activist sees hypocrisy
Pro Natura said Verbier’s reasoning was “not very credible,” saying his interests were economic.

“They want to protect their ski tourism. They want to be able to ski on these glaciers,” Jans said, adding that Verbier and other Swiss resorts were exacerbating global warming by adding parking lots and boosting road traffic in the Alps.

“This is a funny way to deal with the problem,” he declared.

One way or another, Swiss officials said, the country needs to prepare for major changes to its landscape.

“The Alpine glaciers are highly sensitive to climate changes. As temperatures rise, they melt and shorten,” said geographer Hanspeter Holzhauser who works for the UNESCO World Heritage site at the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn glacier to the east of Verbier in central Switzerland.

He said if global temperatures, which climatologists say have turned higher in the past 50 years alongside a spike in industrial output, keep up their accelerated pace then Switzerland’s glaciers could melt completely in 400 years.

A study last month showed that 84 of Switzerland’s 91 glaciers again retreated last year.

Michel Ferla, vice director of the government’s Switzerland Tourism body, said the country needed to start catering to those who visit the Alps to walk and hike, rather than just thinking of those who ski.

About one-third of the 300,000 people involved in the Swiss tourist industry -- around eight percent of the national workforce -- are employed in the ski sector, many making a livelihood by providing services for visitors who swell resorts each winter.

If Switzerland loses its glaciers, said Ferla, “the impact could be dramatic.”

But he would not say whether covering up glaciers could be a way to preserve the picture-perfect mountain tops. “The sustainable way is probably to live a bit differently,” he said.