Author: Schuyler DeBree (STOKE Intern | Duke University Graduate)
My European Ski Season Takeaway: Climate Change’s Impact on Glaciers
Heading into the winter of 2023, ski resorts across Europe were worried. Eight countries reported their hottest January day ever on record.1 Pictures of man-made snow-covered ski runs framed by grass, mud, and rocks—even at Europe’s premier resorts—circulated over the internet.2
My family and I were scheduled to head to Chamonix, France in early February to ski. The national weather agency, Meteo France, reported that the end of 2022 had some of the warmest weather the country had ever experienced for that time of year.3 Throughout all of 2022, temperature records in France had been broken and there were forest fires and drought conditions across the country.2
Lucky for us, two weeks before we arrived in France, a series of storms dropped enough snow to open most runs in the Chamonix Valley. The crown jewel run of our trip, the Vallée Blanche, was slated for day two. The Vallée Blanche descent is about 14 miles long with over 9,000 feet of vertical drop, depending on the route you take.4 During the run, you ski on and over multiple glaciers within the Mont Blanc mountain range, which is situated between Italy, France, and Switzerland.
The Voie Normale (Classic Ski Route) is technically the easiest route and it’s by far the most popular. It follows the line of least gradient through a labyrinth of glaciers, including Géant, Tacul and the famous Mer de Glace. Image and caption source.
My dad monoskied the Vallée Blanche in 1986. At the time, it was about a 4.5-hour run from the top of the Aiguille du Midi tram all the way back into the Chamonix village. He made it a life goal to bring his family back. In February, we realized that goal, and it was truly the coolest nature-based experience I have ever had.
We started the Vallée Blanche run by dropping into the glacier in the bottom right of this image. The thin path at the bottom of the image is a tiny ridge line that you have to hike between the tram and where you start the run.
My family, mid-run.
Unfortunately, our run only lasted about 3.5 hours, and certainly not because we were faster skiers than my dad at 18. The Mer de Glace, which is the glacier situated at the bottom of the run, has receded so much that you can no longer get to the Chamonix village on your skis or board. More accurately, you can, if you are willing to hit some dirt and dodge rocks along the way.
Instead, there is now a staircase up the side of the mountain, to a gondola, that drops you at a train to take you the rest of the way into the village. It is an anticlimactic and brutal finish to the day to climb ~25 stories on exhausted legs with your board on your back.
My family at the base of the stairs, with the glacier, ice cave, and mountain in the background
Our guide, Remi, starting the trek up the stairs with his skis in his backpack
The most troubling part of the climb up the mountain scaffolding was the plaques with glacier-level markers over the years. I walked up the stairs along the mountain that framed the glacier valley for about 5 minutes before I came across the 2016 marker. 2016 does not feel like a long time ago, so my stomach dropped thinking about how much the glacier fell in those short years.
It was so visceral, to walk the entire distance from bottom to top, and feel the chasm between where the glacier is now, and where it used to be. To look across the valley, and appreciate the glacier’s previous height and width, was breathtaking. In that moment, I understood and felt the magnitude and impact of glacier melt on a scale that my brain could better comprehend. I could map it onto the scale of my dad’s lifetime, and my lifetime. I saw the plaque that marked where the glacier was in 1986, and there is no wonder why my dad could ski all the way into the village. I could calculate that if I wanted to do this ski run again, I should probably do it before my hypothetical kids arrive, or at least earlier in their hypothetical lives.
I have had the best ski season of my life, but it was also the most concerning in terms of the state of future snow sports. I am grateful for organizations like STOKE that are committed to empowering the ski resort industry and outdoor community to save winter for generations to come.
The Mer de Glace is the largest glacier in France, but it is projected to be completely gone by the end of the century.6 It is melting at the rate of around 131 feet a year.5 This article “Shrinking glaciers: Mont Blanc from the air, 100 years on” has incredible aerial pictures comparing 3 glaciers in the Mont Blanc Massif from 1919 to 2019, including the Mer de Glace which we skied on. The shots show a stark glacier recession over the 100 years.
In 2019, there were around 170,000 glaciers globally.6 Out of the 500 that were being monitored, all of them were receding, meaning the glacier ice was melting or breaking off faster than it was being replenished.6 This is problematic for a number of reasons, but to name a few: glacier melt changes the surrounding landscape by making soil and rocks less stable, causing erosion, rock falls, and sediment pollution downstream; glacier melt increases sea level rise as water that used to be stored in solid form melts and eventually enters the ocean; and losing glacier cover accelerates global temperature rise because glaciers (as large white layers over the earth) can reflect light and heat back into the atmosphere when intact.6,7 Glacier melt is one of the many consequences of climate change.6,7 As humans have released more carbon into the air, the greenhouse gas effect has increased global temperatures, significantly melting the large ice forms that otherwise have remained relatively stable glaciers.6,7
And all this glacier melt has implications for STOKE’s surf members too. As glaciers melt and oceans warm due to climate change, ocean currents will change and disrupt global weather patterns.7 Coastal communities will face changes in fisheries and marine ecosystems, more frequent flooding, and more frequent and intense storms.7 We are in it together.
If you want to check out more data about climate change (temperature and precipitation) in Chamonix, France, Meteoblue has annual data for temperature and precipitation 1979-2023 for Chamonix. Their graphs show a clear trend of increasing temperature and decreasing precipitation.3
- 1. Mother Jones. “Record heat has turned Europe’s winter into a slushfest”
- 2. France 24. “Climate change: High temperatures, sparse snowfall in Europe’s Alps worries ski industry”
- 3. Meteoblue. “Climate Change Chamonix”
- 4. Ultimate Skiing. “THE VALLÉE BLANCHE SKI DESCENT IN CHAMONIX”
- 5. The Guardian. “Shrinking glaciers: Mont Blanc from the air, 100 years on”
- 6. New Scientist. “Special Report: How climate change is mantling France’s largest glacier”
- 7. WWF. “Why are glaciers and sea ice melting?”