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Climate Witness: Andrea Fabellini, France

Andrea Fabellini lives in Chamonix Mont Blanc, France, a beautiful little town at the foot of the Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe. Since moving there 10 years ago, he has witnessed a dramatic decline in snowfall and other changes in the local environment.

“The slopes didn’t get any snow at all until December and when we did get some snow it rained for days.”

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My name is Andrea Fabellini. I am 35 years old and I live in Chamonix Mont Blanc, France, a beautiful little town at the foot of the Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe. I work at the Binational Police Service of the Mont Blanc Tunnel, and in the spare time I practice snowboarding and film making, among other things.

Good powder in the good old days
I am originally from the central Apennines region of Italy, and I’ve been living in Chamonix/Courmayeur (the Italian side of Mont Blanc) since 1996. When I arrived in Courmayeur, on December 19, 1996, there was a layer of 1 metre of snow, with 50cm of powder on top of it, right in the village, at an elevation of 1200m above sea level. This was pretty normal in the Alps at that time of the year.

A decline in snowfall
As the years went by, we experienced a general decline of snowfall, at a constant rate. Normally we would have the first snow dumps in the village in November, and the temperatures would fall below zero accordingly. In April we would still have a few dumps of a certain importance, 40-50cm, and the slopes would shut at the end of the month, with plenty of spring snow left, even off-piste (off the sky trail), at an elevation of 1700m.

Ten years since I arrived in Chamonix, the weather has changed dramatically. November 2006 was warm and sunny, and so was December. The slopes didn’t get any snow at all, until 20 December, while the normal opening of the winter season is the 9 December in Courmayeur. It was sad to snowboard in a stripe of hard artificial snow in mid December! But this was not all. After Christmas, which was far from normal, the poor snow quality got even worse when it rained up to 2000m. In early February 2007, a snow dump got things almost back to normal, but only for a short lived week or so. It rained for days, way above 2000m, and the snow was all wet and rotten. In March 2007, usually the best month for skiing, it was very rainy and the snowline never fell below 1800m, with wet snow above 2000m. April 2007 has been very hot, almost summery, and the slopes closed down well in advance of the usual end of the skiing season, with the worst snow layer I ever experienced. Same development, if not worse, in the Chamonix ski areas.

Melting permafrost and rockslides
Another unheard of phenomenon which requires special attention, in my opinion, is the following: On 9 March, a rock landslide blocked the roadside of one of the hairpin turns that lead vehicles to the Mont Blanc Tunnel Entrance, on the French side. Picture this: a rock cliff exposed to the north, in early March, that collapses because of the absence of permafrost. I always noticed those huge greenly icicles hanging all over that cliff, from December to March. They were pretty typical. Not anymore. They were never there this past winter.

Early blooms and disrupted hibernations
The damages of this climate change pattern, which may or may not be cyclical (I wish it would), are various and important. I have seen trees in bloom well in advance of the usual time, at the end of February, and animals are waking up from their hibernation too early in the season and risk their life, as it gets back to ‘normal’ seasonal temperatures.

Impact on the local ski and tourism industry
The ski/snowboard industry is very concerned about this raise of the snowline, and there are already regional directives addressing the issue, imposing for example the disregard for improvements to ski lifts and cable cars below 2000m (the vast majority!), the funding being redirected to resorts planning to relocate those lifts to higher grounds. Many small resorts, located at the foot of the alpine valleys, never opened last winter. In the summer, climbers experienced the closing of the classic route that leads to the Mont Blanc summit, for lack of snow bridges over crevasses.

Climate change is a serious issue. Winter seasons like 2000-‘01 or 1996-‘97 were similar to the one that just ended. It doesn’t seem to be a cycle; the temperatures are higher, the snow falls higher and higher up in the mountain every year and the glaciers are melting fast, very fast.

Please act, at all levels, report, expose, stop polluting and change the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources. The climate in the Alps has changed. This is a fact.

The Snow Must go On
In December I won a video-contest organized by National Geographic Adventure, a channel of the FOX/SKY Italy satellite bouquet. The prize is a round the world ticket and a recommendation letter from FOX. The task is to do a “videoblog” from all the places I visit, and I choose to dedicate this once in a life time opportunity to the climate change issue.

The format of my round the world trip, that will start in July 2007, is explained in detail on www.haero.com/blog, and is called “The Snow Must go On”, and it will be dedicated to report, interview, filming, recording and eventual exposure to similar weather patterns, concerning the snow and the mountain cultures of Southern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada. In March 2008 I will produce a documentary that will have a similar title.


Scientific review

Reviewed by: Ghislain Dubois, Territoires, Environnement Conseil (TEC), Marseille, France

Andrea points out one of the most direct and visible impacts of climate change in Europe, and especially in Alpine regions. According to Martin Beniston,”the number of naturally snow-reliable areas would drop [from 666] to 500 with a warming of 1°C, to 404 with +2°C, and to 202 with +4°C”. Undoubtedly, climate change will lead to a decrease in depth and duration of snow cover, especially below 2000 meters.

The current observed trend of snow cover, for the limited long term series we have, show a slow decrease, but not such a drop as Andrea describes. The way Andrea presents his testimonial, tends to overestimate the already happening impact on climate change. Comparing 2 years only (1996-1997 and 2006-2007)hides the natural interannual variability of snowfall. Winter 2006-2007 was indeed dramatic for ski resorts in the Alps, but winter 2005-2006 was totally the opposite, with a lot of snow, at all altitudes, all along the season. Should he compare with 1996, he would say the situation has not evolved so much.

I think the observation is a good indication of potential climate impacts projected for the Alps, but that it is not totally in line with the current impacts observed.

Elsasser, H., Burki, R. (2002). “Climate change as a threat to tourism in the Alps.” Climate Research 20: 253-257.

Beniston, M., F. Keller, et al. (2003). “Estimates of snow accumulation and volume in the Swiss Alps under changing climatic conditions.” Theoretical and Applied Climatology(76): 125-140

All articles are subject to scientific review by a member of the Climate Witness Science Advisory Panel.