Skip to main content

How do snow dependent communities adapt to climate change?

Thanks to the climate crisis, Alpine skiing is facing an uncertain future says Simon Birch, reporting from the French Alps.

The Bois de la Colombière is a remote and secluded forest in the heart of the French Alps, perched 1,500 m high above the ski resort of La Clusaz, a favourite winter destination for British skiers.

For years, the forest and the adjacent protected and ecologically important peat bog, which together are home to over 50 species of rare alpine plants and animals, have remained tucked away and visited only by local walkers.

Recently though all that changed.

Over the past 12 months, the Bois de la Colombière has dominated the French headlines as it’s become the frontline in a battle between environmentalists and the multi-million Euro French ski industry that’s struggling to respond to the unfolding impact of the climate crisis.

Mountain communities and climate change

At the heart of the confrontation is the stark fact that as the Alps warm, snowfall is becoming increasingly unpredictable. This is a growing headache for the ski industry as reliable snow underpins the whole economy of vast swathes of the Alps.

In response, the ski industry’s solution is both simple and controversial: build more and more reservoirs high up in the mountains to provide water which enables ski resorts to create the artificial snow that they desperately need.

The issue at La Clusaz is that the resort already has four mountain reservoirs for snowmaking. The local council however now wants to build a fifth slap-bang in the middle of the Bois de la Colombière at the cost of €10 million. This would destroy an area of forest equivalent to 20 football pitches and threaten the future of the protected peat bog.

As well as objecting to the destruction of the forest and likely demise of the peat bog, environmental campaigners say that using water to make artificial snow is a waste of water given that the Alps are now drying out. Local campaigner Valérie Paumier said,

“The climate crisis here in the Alps isn’t only resulting in warmer temperatures but far less precipitation too.”

With over one hundred new mountain reservoirs planned across the French Alps, environmental groups dug their heels in and made the battle for the Bois de la Colombière a key test case for the whole country. The protests even attracted Extinction Rebellion France which set up a camp in the forest to save it from the chainsaws.

Central to their campaign is the question of how mountain communities such as La Clusaz should respond to the climate crisis. Should they continue to spend vast sums on skiing and snowmaking, or should they prepare for the transition to the new climatic reality of life without snow?

After an initial setback in September 2022 which saw the go-ahead for the new reservoir, the campaigners’ demonstrations and petitions paid off. In an unexpected move, a court in October overturned the previous ruling and delayed the final decision on the new reservoir until 2023.

Campaigner Anne Lassman said,

“As tensions over water resources increase, we’re asking for a real debate on the use of water and on the future development of the mountain economy in the face of climate change.”

Protest camp in woods with sign in French
The now disbanded Extinction Rebellion camp at the Bois de la Colombière. Protestors helped make the question over Alpine skiing’s future headline news. Image (c) Geoffrey Bire

Skiing adapting to climate change

One ski resort that’s accepted the inevitable impact of climate change is Métabief, a relatively low-altitude resort in eastern France which recognises that viable skiing will come to an end by 2035 at the latest.


The resort has now set up a transition programme to help it develop its future without skiing, says Philippe Alpy from Métabief council speaking to the daily regional French newspaper L’Est Républicain:

“The snow which yesterday was the central point of our economy will no longer be so tomorrow.”

Back at the Bois de la Colombière the protestors and the media circus have finally departed, and peace and tranquillity have returned. For now at least the forest and its wildlife are safe.