The Big Melt
It took a long time for the Earth to create the Alps—a lot longer than it’s taking humans to wreck them. The Alpine mountain range first rose an estimated 44 million years ago, when the great African plate began creeping northward, breaking and upthrusting the European plate. The newborn peaks did not stop growing until 9 million years ago, and it would be millions more years before the glaciers and snow that are their signature feature would be in place.
Humans have needed barely a century to make a mess of it all. Green and brown, it appears, are the new white across the southern European peaks as climate change, which historically has done its most noticeable damage closer to sea level, now reaches higher.
From 1960 to 2017, the Alpine snow season shortened by 38 days—starting an average of 12 days later and ending 26 days earlier than normal. Europe experienced its warmest-ever winter in the 2015–16 season, with snow cover in the southern French Alps just 20% of its typical depth.
Last December was the driest in 150 years of record keeping, and the flakes that did manage to fall didn’t stay around long. The snow line—the point on a slope at which it’s high enough and thus cold enough for snow to stick—is about 3,900 ft., which is a historic high in some areas. But worse lies ahead as scientists predict melt even at nearly 10,000 ft. by the end of the century.
All this is doing terrible things not just to Alpine beauty but to Alpine businesses—especially ski resorts. Globally, the ski industry generates up to $70 billion per year, and 44% of all skiers—and their dollars—flock to the Alps.
Imagine the Caribbean culture and economy without beaches and water; that’s the Alpine culture and economy without snow.
The difference is that you can’t make an artificial ocean, but you can make artificial snow, and ski resorts all over the world rely on it. Nowhere is that reliance more urgent than in the Alps, and nowhere in the Alps is it more poignant than on the slopes of the Dolomites, an Alpine range of 18 peaks in northern Italy. In 2009, the Dolomites were named a World Heritage Site by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for their beauty, their complex geomorphology and their scientific significance.
But the Dolomites have changed—their snow quickly vanishing—and that transformation is what caught the eye of Italian photographer Marco Zorzanello. A onetime student of literature, he found himself growing less interested in the lit part of his education and more interested in the human part—particularly the damage humans as a whole are doing to ourselves and to our world through climate change.
“I was interested in the ways the changing environment is changing the appearance of the planet,” Zorzanello says. “We see all of these images, and we just get used to them. It’s like the pictures become an anesthetic.”
Pictures of the Dolomites, he hoped, could once again cause us to feel the pain, and the portfolio he brought back from two winters of shooting on the range’s peaks do just that. The ski seasons go on as they always have, but the trails look unhappily out of place—wide white avenues of snow cut across a landscape of dead grass, dead scrub and pebbled paths.
The skiers themselves seem out of place too, relaxing in chaise longues on the dry ground beside the trails, or arriving at the slopes in ski pants and T-shirts, because why bundle up when the temperature is a balmy 50°F? “It was incredibly hot for that time of year,” says Zorzanello. “And this was 2,100 m [6,900 ft.] up the mountain.”
Just as jarring are the images of trucks dumping fresh snow on the trails and of useless snowmobiles that would normally be busy set aside and covered by tarps. And everywhere, up and down the trails, are the snowmaking machines—a technology that’s gotten more refined as the need has gotten greater.
It was in 1936 that Japanese physicist Ukichiro Nakaya created the first artificial snowflake in a sealed chamber in his laboratory at Hokkaido University. That was no small feat, since snow is much more than just frozen water falling from the sky. You could get that much from hail, which is nothing but wind-driven raindrops that combine and freeze at high altitudes.
A snowflake forms when water vapor condenses into infinitesimal micro-droplets and the droplets then find a nucleus—typically an even smaller grain of atmospheric dust—to which they attach and crystallize. More vapor collects on the crystal, producing a larger flake, which eventually grows big enough and heavy enough to fall to the ground.
Nakaya nucleated his first flakes on the fur of rabbits, inspired by a single flake he spotted on a single rabbit hair. One flake at a time, of course, is no way to make enough snow to cover a slope; what was needed was a way to manufacture the stuff in bulk.
The first snowmaking machine was developed in the 1940s, entirely by accident, when Canadian researchers were studying the way ice forms on jet engines. As part of their research, the researchers sprayed water into a refrigerated wind tunnel—and got an artificial snow squall for their efforts. In the 1950s, one of the first purpose-built snow machines was patented in the U.S., based on the technique the Canadians had stumbled across.
A modern snowmaking machine combines the elegance of Hakaya’s work with the muscle of Connecticut-based Tey Manufacturing, which first brought the machines to market. The earliest iterations used microscopic dirt particles and, later, silver iodide as a nucleating agent. Increasingly, they use a protein extracted from a type of bacterium found on plant leaves. The protein causes water to crystallize at comparatively high wintertime temperatures, which is just what you want in the process of snowmaking.
Scientists thus developed a way to irradiate and sterilize it, and it’s now used as the preferred nucleating agent in the water used in snow blowers. Pumped at high pressure through an array of nozzles and fans, the water blasts into the sky as a fine mist. There it crystallizes and drifts to the ground as a reasonable approximation of snow.
A reasonable approximation, of course, will never replace authentic snow—not the feel of it, the look of it or the behavior of it. And it surely won’t replace the enchantment of it, falling in proper flakes from proper clouds, covering the ground in an unbroken blanket, rather than in engineered trails crisscrossing a bleak brown landscape.
“The dream of skiing on Alpine snow is going to go away,” says Zorzanello. The loss of the beauty that once was the Alps is a just price for the damage wrought by humans—and might serve as a sufficient spur for us to begin to avoid doing more.