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At a mountain resort with no real snow, skiing faces a total wipe-out

Just an hour’s drive from Rome, local skiers have made the Apennine Mountains their winter playground for decades. But this season, the usually pristine white resorts look more like muddy wastelands. The few chairlifts operating glide over barren hills, peppered with hikers where snowboarders normally stream.

In the midst of an exceptionally warm winter, resorts like Campo Felice have a major problem: there’s no snow. And a long-running drought means there isn’t enough water to make the amount of artificial snow needed to paint its slopes white.

What little snow the resort’s owners produce is at constant threat of melting in the warmth. But they have managed to make enough for four pistes — ribbons of white on the bald brown hills. It’s something, at least, but a far cry from its usual 14 slopes.

February is on track to be the warmest on record for the planet, following a record-hot year, as climate change and El Niño combined to make for a miserable ski season in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere.

Devastating snow loss has hit European skiing particularly hard, including in the more famous Alps and Dolomites to the north.

The climate crisis is making winters milder and shorter in many parts of the world, but Andrea Lallini, who runs Campo Felice with his brother, said it was as if winter didn’t show up this year at all. It’s been the worst in the 23 years his family has run the resort. All the snow they do have is artificial.

“The problem this year is that there hasn’t been any precipitation, plus it has never gotten cold,” he told CNN.

“We should have opened in December, but we couldn’t even make snow until mid-January,” he said, explaining it was too warm then to produce the snow. “We will have to close down a month early at this rate.”

Temperatures need to be below the freezing mark to make artificial snow stick, and there just haven’t been enough such days this year. And with a lack of rain and record-breaking heatwaves, the lakes that normally provide water for artificial snow have run dryThe resort is literally buying water this season to feed its snow-making guns.

Lallini worries that if they get more tough seasons, the whole operation may eventually become unsustainable.

Skis in the muddy ground at Campo Felice. - Fiona Sibbett/CNN
Skis in the muddy ground at Campo Felice. - Fiona Sibbett/CNN
One of the four pistes made of artificial snow. - Fiona Sibbett/CNN
One of the four pistes made of artificial snow. - Fiona Sibbett/CNN

But Campo Felice is by no means the only one feeling the heat.

Across all of Italy’s ski resorts, nearly 90% use artificial snow to some degree, according to Carlo Carmagnola, a snow expert with Météo France who studies the impact of climate change on ski resorts. In the French Alps, it’s 40%. In Austria, it’s up to 80%, he said.

“These aren’t perfect systems, in the sense that you need to have sufficiently low temperatures and humidity conditions to be able to produce the snow,” Carmagnola told CNN. “And then, of course, you need water. And today, one of the most sensitive issues is the availability of and access to water resources, which in some valleys is already complicated, with conflicts at specific times of the season between agriculture, drinking water and snowmaking.”

Snowmaking is incredibly energy intensive, and if the guns or cannons used to produce it run on fossil fuels, the process contributes to global warming — which is why natural snow is declining in the first place.

There’s also concern snowpacks could hit a tipping point where they will decline more rapidly. A recent study showed that once average winter temperatures rise above 17 degrees Fahrenheit in a particular place, snowpacks there essentially fall off a cliff edge. Even fractional temperature rises above that point accelerate the loss of snow.

Out of snow, out of work

Lallini and his brother, Luca Lallini, are running the family business in radically different conditions to those their father faced when he opened the resort.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Campo Felice had no need for artificial snow at all, Luca Lallini told CNN, as he scrolled through old photos of snow so deep, it had to be scooped out of windows in the resort’s restaurants and bars. Now those same amenities sit closed, surrounded by dirt.

These changes have been hard not just on the Lallini brothers, but their employees, which usually number 250 in the ski season. Just 50 have been called to work so far this year.

“On an average Sunday in February, we’d see more than 6,000 people on all the slopes,” Lallini told CNN. “We don’t even have 500 for a whole weekend this year.”

The year-end holidays and the month of February are usually the area’s best seasons. Holidays in Italy include an annual settimana bianca, or white week, in February, when schools close across the country so families can go skiing. Now Italian media are joking that the holiday was more of a settimana verde, a green week, with nearly half the nation’s ski slopes only partially open, or not open at all.

The ski industry in this part of Italy is the main employer in the region, said Gennarino Di Stefano, the mayor of Rocca di Cambio, the highest altitude town in these mountains.

“The effects of the lack of snow cause a series of problems,” he says, looking out over the muddy fields. He said each town in the region is deeply invested in skiing, which provides jobs for ski instructors, managers, bar and restaurant staff, and people who run the lifts, from all over the region.

“Many people are not working,” he said.

An old photograph showing a typical snow season. In the 1980s and 1990s, Campo Felice had no need for artificial snow at all. - Fiona Sibbett/CNN
An old photograph showing a typical snow season. In the 1980s and 1990s, Campo Felice had no need for artificial snow at all. - Fiona Sibbett/CNN

The lack of snow also impacts future skiers — the central Italian stretch of the Apennine Mountains is popular with budding winter sport athletes.

Isidoro Francesi, a ski instructor at Campo Felice, says young competitive skiers have had to seek other sites at higher altitudes, where snow is more plentiful, to train. Usually, that means traveling farther north as well.

“That’s expensive for families, but it is also an added economic burden here. We are all working less,” he said. “For those of us who have always worked here, it is heart-breaking to see nature spoiled like this.”

CNN’s Camille Knight contributed from Paris and Antonia Mortensen contributed from Rome.

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