A snow-free Switzerland?

There has been a great deal of media focus on the near-total lack of snow in Swiss ski resorts at the beginning of the year. Sonia Seneviratne explains why we will have to get used to this scenario and what needs to be done about it.
People enjoy themselves on a slope of artificial snow, pictured on Wednesday, January 4, 2023, in Wildhaus, Switzerland. The Swiss alps are confronted with a lack of snow and warm temperatures. (Image: KEYSTONE/Gian Ehrenzeller)

As the year began, there was barely any snow below 2,000 meters on Switzerland’s mountains – apart from artificial snow. This affects the core of Switzerland’s identity. A Switzerland without snow is like Santa Claus without his signature red and white garb: the enchantment is gone.

You don’t need to look far to understand why snowfall has been so meagre. Temperatures this winter are significantly higher than in recent decades. This is not a chance event; instead it reflects the long-term rise in temperatures observed throughout the seasons in Switzerland. The average temperature increase in Switzerland since the pre-industrial time (second half of the 19th century) is 2.4°C. This is twice the average rate of global warming, which is currently 1.1°C.1 These temperature increases can mainly be attributed to the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil, gas and coal, which increase CO2 levels in the atmosphere.2

Irreversible climate “change”

This negative trend is accelerating because human emissions continue to increase and accumulate in the atmosphere. In other words, this climate “change” is largely irreversible; the excess CO2 will stay in the atmosphere for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. This means that even if we were to reduce our emissions to zero, our mountains would not just suddenly whiten up again. This year’s snow coverage is still much better than what we can look forward to in the future. Snow is becoming a luxury good – a sort of “white gold”.

«We can no longer shut our eyes to the fact that Switzerland is intensely impacted by the climate crisis.»      Sonia Seneviratne

While this is certainly bad news, it gets even worse. Each year, humans continue to add to CO2 concentrations through the use of internal combustion engines, oil and gas heaters, air travel, cruise ships and the consumption of climate-damaging products. And although snow-free mountains are a direct visual illustration of the consequences and have a very real impact – on tourism, for example – we are hardly a paragon of climate virtue here in Switzerland. In fact, per capita we are among the top 20 countries for CO2 emissions. 3

Who will pay for the shortage of “white gold"?

The lack of snow has economic ramifications. Zermatt had to cancel its transnational ski race in October at the last minute due to lack of snow and suffered “considerable” damage to its image. It was long doubtful whether Adelboden would be hosting the Alpine Ski World Cup the past weekend. The Splügen-Tambo area – like other small ski regions – had to close its entire lift system until further notice due to a lack of snow. According to Time Magazine, ski tourism in Europe is a 30 billion dollar industry.4 So who is supposed to make up for these losses if tourists decide to ski instead in the Rockies, Andes or even Himalayas?

A glimmer of hope: counterproposal for the Glacier Initiative

We can no longer shut our eyes to the fact that Switzerland is intensely impacted by the climate crisis – particularly in mountain regions. The glaciers are melting, hillsides are becoming unstable, and the snow is disappearing. There is no way to make up for this. International climate policy is gridlocked. The 2022 Climate Change Conference in Sharm-el-Sheikh made no progress towards reducing CO2 emissions worldwide, and Switzerland is in no credible position to play an influential role if it doesn’t do its own homework first.

Nevertheless, there is a glimmer of hope in Swiss climate policy, most notably in the case of the counterproposal to the Glacier Initiative, which has been approved by parliament. The fact that some politicians want to hold a referendum in opposition to it is inexplicable to me. But there are also indications that the Swiss people understand what is actually at stake, as we see in various ambitious cantonal climate laws and initiatives. The Landsgemeinde assembly in Glarus, for example, has adopted much stricter climate policies. Zurich’s new Energy Act and the Basel2030 Climate Justice initiative are also major steps in the right direction. Let’s hope that in 2023 this new climate policy awareness will establish itself throughout Switzerland, so that our children and grandchildren have some opportunity to gaze upon Switzerland’s snow-covered mountains.

This article first appeared in slightly modified form as a column in the Swiss newspaper "SonntagsBlick". (in German)

About the author

Sonia Seneviratne is a Professor of Land-​​​​Climate Dynamics at ETH Zurich.