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A decade in the snow

As we approach 2010 it seems worth asking how the noughties have been for snowfall?

I am sitting in Verbier at the moment in late-November. Last week we had 50cm of fresh snow on top of half a metre from the week before. The resort was covered in deep snow and it was a beautiful white all the way down to the valley floor at under 800m. Winter had arrived. Now it has warmed up and either melted or been washed away by the rain. The freezing level is 3,000m as a warm foehn wind has come in from the south.

The trouble with writing about the weather is that it changes, or does it?

An analysis of the facts shows that in Verbier the snow level has been pretty similar on average throughout the last decade.  I have looked through the details of every year and every month and quite frankly there isn't much difference. There was more snow on average at the beginning of the decade, but not that much more. At 73-years old Hubert Cretton is the resort's oldest working mountain guide, and has been a high mountain guide for almost 50 years.  "Sometimes we get good winters and sometimes we can get bad ones," he observes. "Overall things really haven't changed that much. The winter of 1962/63 saw huge levels of snowfall and then 1 year later we had a very poor winter and many resorts had to close early due to a lack of snow."

There is a general perception that skiing and snowboarding is under threat from global warming.  The overall annual temperatures are undoubtedly rising and one only has to look at the retreating glaciers to see that - but the glaciers tend to melt in summer not winter. A few years ago it was a poor winter for snow in general and in the first week of January I read in a national newspaper that there was little snow in The Alps and the ski industry was under threat from global warming.

I was in The Alps and it was -12c so the shortage of snow was nothing to do with the temperature; it just wasn't raining.  Again many low resorts suffered that winter but some high resorts actually had more snow as there was more precipitation. Overall it was a poor winter, but generalisations can be dangerous. Then there was last winter.  I will stick my neck out and say we will not see a winter like that for a while.  It started snowing in November and continued on a regular basis until May.  I was in The Alps all winter and visited dozens of different ski areas and saw conditions with my own eyes

High resorts in The Alps had good snow, low resorts did too and the excellent conditions stretched from east to west north to south. I didn't get to The Pyrenees last winter but friends and contacts told me they could not remember a better winter. As I cast my mind back over the noughties the single thing that jumps out to me is how the season has shifted.  The snows seem to come later and continues falling later.

"April is the best month to ski and we seem to get much more snowfall in that month than we used to," the Swiss mountain guide Martin Epp told me. That was back in 2000. "The winter is shifting and I reckon it will continue."   He has proved to be right and ask anyone in the know and they will confirm the joys of skiing in April and even May.  Many ski resorts close with plenty of snow around. So as I study the satellite images of weather patterns to see when and from where we may get our next weather front I am left with the feeling that things have changed over the decade, but not that much. It is a better "story" to say we've had much more snow or a lot less and many will take one or other slant this winter depending on how things pan out.

After the good start this Autumn many are already proclaiming it will be another bumper winter.  How on earth do they know? I am just observing that winter is underway and as I look ahead to the season I remember the answer of the former director of the tourist office here in Verbier, Patrick Messeiller, when asked by journalists what the winter will be like.

"It will snow and I know it will be white."

This article is currently published as a column for In the Snow magazine.

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