Skiers might be staring at snowless slopes for years as the world warms

As global temperatures change, so do wind patterns, and experts suspect El Niño too of an oblique role in the dryness we have seen this January. (AFP)
As global temperatures change, so do wind patterns, and experts suspect El Niño too of an oblique role in the dryness we have seen this January. (AFP)

Summary

  • A snow scarcity at Gulmarg and Auli has disappointed skiing buffs. Since global warming, unlike El Niño, isn’t about to reverse, this problem may persist. They’ll need innovative lures.

A perfect winter day is all about wrapping our fingers around a mug of hot chocolate, lazing about in a pair of warm socks and finding a cozy blanket to snuggle in. On holiday, this can be done nestled in a Himalayan cottage, or resort, with or without getting the crackle of a fire-place going. Some of us are less given to the laze of a good hurkle-durkle, a Scottish term for staying snugly indoors, and prefer to brave the icy thrill of Alpine skiing, a sport that’s every bit as niche in India as it’s demanding. It demands sub-zero gear, especially good snow-boots, and skills that take some practice to sharpen—not perfect, mind you, even if claims of perfection are made. It demands alertness, even if the serenity of a snow-clad slope puts one ‘in the zone,’ a Zen-like state of mind, something Formula-1 racing champs are said to experience too. It demands many other things. Above all, it demands snowfall. To the disappointment and dread of Indian skiers, however, India’s two big skiing resorts, Gulmarg in Kashmir and Auli in Uttarakhand, have had a largely dry winter so far. For long stretches, as reported this week, there has been no white in sight. Barren slopes stare back in stark contrast with what’s usual at this time of the year. News of it led to a surge of travel-plan cancellations, leaving small local enterprises that depend on ski tourism in a flap.

What happened? Much of the winter rain and snow (at altitudes above 1,600-odd-metres) that northern states get is brought by ‘westerly disturbances’ (WD), which are extratropical storm systems formed over the Mediterranean region, moving from west to east. Their usual patterns of precipitation, though, have been disrupted in recent years. While these changes are still being analysed and causes studied, experts are clear that this season’s snow deficit in the western Himalayas is on account of feeble WDs, which have been losing both intensity and frequency for a while now. The prime suspect is climate change, of course, given the complex ways in which it plays havoc with atmospheric systems across the globe. And the past year has had an added phenomenon: El Niño. This is part of an oceanic seesaw of warm water in the Pacific, with warmth tilting away from the Asian seaboard resulting in dry conditions in Asia, even as thermal maps in many places elsewhere glow warmer. As global temperatures change, so do wind patterns, and experts suspect El Niño too of an oblique role in the dryness we have seen this January. This ocean effect is cyclical, and a reversal could take place soon, perhaps within a year. So the real worry is global warming, which is an upward trend the world is struggling just to flatten, let alone reverse. If snowless slopes spell skier disappointment, the prospect of drier climate evokes dread.

Will February bring respite? This has been the talk of Gulmarg and Auli, reports suggest. But maybe it’s time for their tourist-serving businesses to look farther over the horizon and start working out contingency plans. As their unique appeal as skiing spots comes under an existential threat, the two towns may not find it easy adapting to snow insufficiency. Yet, novel ideas to attract tourists could possibly offer them a security cushion. Auli, which is just 35km from Valley of Flowers, a trekker’s delight in warmer months, has always attracted hikers. So has Gulmarg, with its natural splendour. The winter landscape need not always be snow-clad to be fabulous. And then there are the joys of hurkle-durkle too.

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