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Doctored snow generates ill feeling

Keystone

Environmentalists have raised concerns over the increasing amounts of chemicals used to keep pistes in a skiable condition.

This content was published on January 19, 2007 - 12:12

The decision follows reports that 1.5 tons of ammonium nitrate fertiliser was used to ensure the running of last weekend's World Cup Lauberhorn race in Wengen.

Urs Näpflin, Lauberhorn race director, confirmed to swissinfo that the quoted amount of the chemical compound, which raises the freezing point of the snow, had been spread "over the entire piste".

"I have no qualms as we're using the fertiliser in such small concentrations," he said, adding that the landowners were happy because in spring the grass cut up by skiers grows back much quicker because of the fertiliser.

The Federal Environment Office also raised concerns and says it will be investigating the use of chemicals on ski slopes in Switerland. This would include the Lauberhorn.

"Even if only half of 1.5 tons was used, that's still more than what is allowed for agricultural purposes," Elisabeth Maret of the Environment Office told swissinfo.

Maret explained that while there were regulations for the use of fertilisers for agricultural purposes – for example farmers are not allowed to spread fertiliser on snow – there were no such regulations for ski runs, although they are still governed by laws concerning run-off water and chemicals.

Commercial pressures

Roland Schuler, from Pro Natura, Switzerland's largest nature conservation organisation, was concerned that the quantity used could have negative effects on the flora and fauna.

"Such a large amount can have a strong effect on the vegetation in fields and the diversity of species will be reduced," he told swissinfo.

"This artificial fertiliser could also get into nearby streams and rivers and lower down into lakes, where it could harm fish."

Näpflin denied he was being irresponsible. "I'm very concerned about the environment – everyone who lives in Wengen is – which is why we have asked an engineering group to look into [the effects of using the fertiliser]."

Jost Brunner, mayor of Wengen, said it was important for Swiss tourism as a whole that the Lauberhorn race went head. The race brings an annual revenue of SFr9 million ($7.2 million) to the area.

"I find it hard to believe that such a reaction is proportionate when one compares the importance of this race and the minimal damage to the environment that could be caused," he said.

Consequences

The future's looking good for ammonium nitrate producers. Last week warm weather and a lack of snow forced organisers to scrap a World Cup super-combination race in Wengen and the International Ski Federation had to move men's World Cup races from Chamonix to another French resort, Val d'Isère.

The Swiss environment ministry and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have already examined the possible business consequences of global warming for winter sports in low-lying areas.

The ministry said resorts lower than 1,500 metres above sea level would increasingly struggle to maintain revenues. The resort of Wengen is at 1,290 metres and many runs at Gstaad (resort altitude 1,050 metres) and Engelberg (1,000 metres) remain closed.

The OECD warned in December that global warming could devastate Europe's low-lying ski resorts within decades and added that banks in Switzerland are already refusing to lend money to ski resorts below 1,500 metres.

In addition, the thawing of the permafrost could have serious and expensive consequences for infrastructure as it loosens the foundations of ski lift installations and rail lines.

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

In brief

The 4,465-metre Lauberhorn classic is the oldest and longest downhill race on the World Cup circuit.

Its length, combined with ride times of about 2:30 minutes (about one minute longer than regular downhill races) and the achievement of top speeds close to 160km/h (highest maximum speed in the FIS world cup) is a huge challenge.

An estimated 20,000 spectators attended the races in the Bernese resort of Wengen.

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Key facts

The chemical compound ammonium nitrate is a white powder at room temperature and standard pressure.
The most common use of ammonium nitrate is in fertilisers. This is due to its high nitrogen content (plants require nitrogen to make proteins) and inexpensive manufacturing processes.
It has also been used as an oxidising agent in explosives, especially improvised explosive devices.

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