Skiers enjoying the deep snow. Photograph by Jacques Naegeli (1885-1971), Gstaad.
Skiers enjoying the deep snow. Photograph by Jacques Naegeli (1885-1971), Gstaad. © Archiv Jacques Naegeli, Graphische Sammlung, NB

In search of snow

Switzerland and snow have a very special history. It ranges from skiing to avalanche research. As the planet heats up the snow is melting, and it’s happening here in Switzerland as well. What has happened? And how will it snow in the future? A search for clues.

Hannes Mangold

Hannes Mangold

Hannes Mangold is a cultural scientist, facilitator and exhibition organiser.

It’s estimated that the first snow fell on Earth 2.4 billion years ago. In the area of what is now Switzerland, Homo sapiens probably felt snow on his skin for the first time more than 46,000 years ago. But it’s only in the last two hundred years that humankind has become a significant factor in the story of snow. That’s how long the internal combustion engine has been heating up the global climate. As a result the snow is melting, and it’s happening here in Switzerland too. While natural snow is becoming a scarce commodity these days, until recently the mountain regions in particular suffered from the curse of too much snow. Up until the 19th century, snow held connotations of a barren, difficult time of year. The term “white hell” referred to the mortal danger it represented. The fact that dancing snowflakes and snowclad mountain peaks nowadays stir romantic feelings of enchantment and excitement is closely tied to the success of winter tourism. With snow sports, an English elite brought a welcome new source of income to the mountains in about 1900. This new wave of interest was actively promoted, and even before World War II the Swiss Alps had become established at home and abroad as a winter tourism destination par excellence. The masses of snow promised fun and amusement and also turned out to be white gold.
Avalanche winter 1951 in Airolo. Photograph from a private album belonging to Italian-Swiss writer and psychologist Edvige Livello.
Avalanche winter 1951 in Airolo. Photograph from a private album belonging to Italian-Swiss writer and psychologist Edvige Livello. © Estate of Edvige Livello, Swiss Literature Archive, NB

Avalanches

The abundant snow was literally worth a fortune. But it was still a source of danger. How could people enjoy the positive aspects of snow while keeping its horrific side in check? Over centuries, those who lived in the mountains had built up a significant body of knowledge about avalanches. In around 1900, the relevant authorities in Switzerland also started investing in snow research. The new expenditure item gained political legitimacy thanks in large part to early snow science pioneers such as Louis Agassiz and Alfred de Quervain. These official endeavours culminated in 1943 in the opening of the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos. Switzerland took a leading role in amassing knowledge about snow profiles, slip hazards and crystal structures. Then, in the winter of 1950 and 1951, overwhelming quantities of snow fell from the sky. There were scores of avalanches. Throughout the Alpine region, more than 250 people met a “white death”. The catastrophe prompted the authorities to start investing in snow research again. In addition to prevention, the focus was now also on emergency rescue. In the 19th century dogs were used to search for people buried by avalanches, but now technical solutions were used. The army in particular experimented with magnets and radio waves. In the 1960s, army technicians tested the first avalanche rescue beacons in practice. From 1975 onwards, these devices were sold by a private supplier under the product name “Barryvox”. The legendary St Bernard Barry finally became a museum piece.
Using a dog to rescue avalanche victims on the St Gotthard pass, ca. 1839.
Using a dog to rescue avalanche victims on the St Gotthard pass, ca. 1839. Swiss National Museum

Drill cores

In the post-war economic boom, skiing was stylised into a national sport and avalanche rescue became a science. At the same time, snow and ice research moved in a new direction. Innovations in nuclear physics made it possible to date even the smallest material samples with relative precision. The Bernese physicist Hans Oeschger played a key role in applying this work to ice cores. Climate researchers discovered that glaciers consisted of a vast number of microscopically thin layers that were composed of the frozen snowfalls of past millennia. Ice cores made these layers accessible. They provided a window into climate history that went back much further than any human record. With significant Swiss involvement, it became clear that the climate has been subject to much more rapid changes than previously thought. Since humans have been burning fossil fuels on a large scale, the temperature has been rising at an unprecedented rate. This new learning about snow, ice and glaciers has helped provide scientific evidence of global warming of human origin.
Ice core from the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research (OCCR), 2006.
Ice core from the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research (OCCR), 2006. Wikimedia / Laurent Augustin

Forecasts

By looking back at the long history of snow, climate research is now able to make forecasts for the planet’s future climate. How warm will it get in Switzerland in the next few decades? What does that mean for the snow in the Alps? Climatologist Christoph Marty has investigated these questions at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research. Marty came to the conclusion that in fifty years’ time, it will still be snowing in Switzerland. However, snowfall will become increasingly rare. In addition, the snow cover will stay on the ground for a shorter time and will recede at higher altitudes. The melting of the glaciers is also accelerating.
The snow of the future – Interview with Christoph Marty, Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (in German). YouTube / Swiss National Library
This reduction in snow and ice is having a severe impact on mountain regions. Winter sports are also seriously affected. At altitudes below 2,500 metres above sea level, it will soon be too warm even for artificial snow. In Switzerland, it’s quite possible that within the next two generations skiing will be relegated to indoor ski slopes and a handful of exclusive, high-altitude resorts. Only a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will help stop the Great Melt. Does the societal and individual will for this exist? The choices we make today will be telling.
Artificial snow slope in Savognin on 15 December 2016.
Artificial snow slope in Savognin on 15 December 2016. © Christof Sonderegger / Prisma

Snow. The wonder in white

04.03.2022 01.07.2022 / Swiss National Library
Until 1 July 2022, the Swiss National Library in Bern is showing the exhibition Snow. The wonder in white. The exhibition invites visitors to reflect on the history of snow, and its future. Visit the website for a quick look at the exhibition www.nationalbibliothek.ch. The Gegensprecher, the podcast for the exhibition, provides background information.

Further posts

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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).