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Teacher Blog: Upcoming Visit from POW Switzerland

11 January 2019

With the ski season now upon us, Surval’s Sustainability Club are excited to be welcoming speakers from Protect Our Winters Switzerland to Surval on Friday the 8th of February. Many students and staff in the school have already taken their first steps towards supporting POW and raising awareness of this highly important organisation by buying POW T-shirts and water bottles, and the Sustainability Club are planning further fundraising activities this term. Miss MacLeod, founder of the Sustainability Club, delivered an assembly to introduce the visit...

“Every flake with all its prongs and dints / Burns ecstatic as a new-lit star” (John Davidson)

“I remembered the effect that the view of the tremendous and ever-moving glacier had produced upon my mind when I first saw it. It had then filled me with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy.” (Mary Shelley)

“If there is pow in the backyard, ride the backyard.” (Jeremy Jones)

For my sixth birthday, I asked for snow. That was the present I wanted. The night of my birthday, I went to sleep with the world still clad in the dark russets and faded greens of November’s autumnal garb; when I woke up aged six, the world was white. Nearly eight inches of snow had fallen in the night. 

It felt like magic.

And so the memory of this was still fresh in my mind when, a year or so later, I put “snow” on my Christmas list to Santa. When I awoke in the early hours of Christmas day, my window was dark and clear – no snug flakes nestling in its frame. But Santa had obviously had the foresight to plan ahead during some earlier fleeting December snowfall: inside my Christmas stocking was a glass jar packed full of snow. This was good enough for me! My brother and I tumbled downstairs to show our parents our Santa loot. When I asked my Mum what I should do with my snow, in an absent-minded moment (perhaps induced by the 5am start), my Mum said to put it in the fridge. It struck me as odd at the time, but I figured that Mum knew best, so I tucked it carefully onto one of the fridge shelves. Later that day, I returned to the fridge to see my snow again. Funny how vividly I remember that moment – the opening of the door, the disbelief at the sight of the clear jar full of water, the despair as I realised my snow was gone, the regret that I hadn’t questioned my Mum when she said “fridge” and not “freezer”. It had struck me as strange at the time – why hadn’t I said something? 

Decades later, in Les Deux Alpes in France, something happened that reminded me of that moment. In the early 2000s, I learned how to snowboard at a summer camp in Deux Alpes; I made my first ever turns on the glacier there. Like watching a reel of film, I can still see the slope spread out in front of me, remember the feeling of freedom and flight and speed of those first turns on a snowboard. And, in the summer of 2016, I returned to the glacier for a between-seasons snowboarding fix. There was still snow, still skiers – although way more skiers than the previous decade, driven there by the closure of other summer skiing glaciers.  But the slope where I had made those unforgettable first turns was no longer there. The strangely lunar landscape of rock lay grey under the shockingly hot July sun. And the chairlift that had come up from the bottom of that run was gone too. That fifteen-year gap between visits – an infinitesimal blip in earth’s history – let me see the sickeningly stark contrast in the glacier then and now; let me personally witness the frighteningly drastic rate of its shrinkage. 

It woke me up to the reality of the future we are facing if we do not act now. When the seas and rivers of glaciers are gone; when the chairlifts are rusting on bare brown slopes; when it is simply too late to make any difference, I don’t want to have that feeling I did with that glass jar of water – that there is something that I could have done to save snow. 

For so many of us, snow is so much more than this cold white stuff that falls from the sky and turns the world white for a while. It is part of our soul – one of earth’s greatest gifts. And yet, if this region sees a 5 – 6 degree Celsius temperature rise, as many scientists now predict (the European Alps are heating at three times faster than the global average), in three generations the sight of snow on the Alps will exist only in memory. In Summer 2012, legendary peaks like the Matterhorn in Zermatt and the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix were snowless and free of ice for the first time in recorded history.

So why does it matter if the stone on the mountains remains bare?

If you love to ski, or snowboard, or snowshoe, or ice-climb, or any pastime that takes you into the awesome majesty of the mountains, you will know already why it matters. For you, and for any children or grandchildren that you want to see inheriting those loves. This is why the advocates who are trying to protect our winters are hoping that, as an international set of some 65 million people, snow sports enthusiasts are galvanised by what they see into becoming one of the first major groups to act on climate change. 

But it doesn’t just matter for the mountain lovers and the winter sports devotees. The effects of a warming world will be devastating on a much wider scale. With glacier retreat and warming temperatures, mountain perma-frost begins to thaw – with potentially deadly effects for the towns and villages that lie below. In July of 2010, more than 20 million cubic feet of rock – an amount comparable to half the size of the Empire State Building – came crashing down from the East face of the Eiger in Switzerland. In places like Alaska and Siberia, melting perma-frost is toppling buildings, cracking roads and sinking cemeteries. Moreover, scientists estimate that the world’s permafrost holds 1,500 billion tons of carbon, almost double the amount of carbon that is currently in the atmosphere. When permafrost thaws, it releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. As the global thermostat rises, permafrost, rather than storing carbon, could become a significant source of planet-heating emissions, creating a Catch-22 situation in which the carbon dioxide escaping the earth contributes to the heating of the planet, and leads to ever more carbon dioxide being released.

And these aren’t the only ramifications. Melting glaciers will affect the water supply of billions of people. The world’s glaciers act as natural reservoirs; they store water in the winter, and gradually release it in summer as the ice melts. Additionally, unlike human-constructed reservoirs, the ice in glaciers keeps the water locked away in a form that does not easily evaporate. In China’s western regions alone, the glaciers there are the source of rivers that supply drinking water to 1.8 billion people. Qinghai’s Halong Glacier is 1,200 meters shorter than it was just thirty years ago, and its rate of retreat nearly doubled from 2006 to 2017. Furthermore, the thawing has caused two huge ice-avalanches in the region – terrifying events that, though once rare, are predicted to become more frequent as global temperatures rise; just as scientists have observed that the changing weather patterns caused by climate change, such as winter rainfall at high altitude and freeze / thaw patterns, are leading to an increase in avalanches in mountain ranges throughout the northern hemisphere. 

The winter sports industry has been compared to the canary in the coalmine – the first to experience the insidious signs of global warming that others may not yet be noticing. In the early 2000s, professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones found that more and more of the resorts that he relied on for snow were opening later in the season and closing much earlier. As many of us who have observed the effects of climate change first-hand have been inspired to do, Jones started to do some research. What he found out inspired a need for action in him – yet there were no organisations actively seeking to mobilise the snow sports community into action against climate change. And so Jones decided to start one.

In 2007, he founded Protect Our Winters, a social movement dedicated to preserving our winters, designed to activate a passionate community and to create the political will for meaningful action by state and federal policymakers. Started in the U.S, there are now branches of POW around the world – including right here in Switzerland. The office of POW Switzerland works on a voluntary basis, relying on the commitment of its volunteers to function successfully. Last term, the Surval Sustainability Committee contacted POW.ch and invited them to visit Surval. This is the term when, every Thursday, we head into the mountains to ski, snowboard and snowshoe; at the end of January, the school will spend its annual Ski Week in Anzère. We hope to instil a love of the mountains and the incomparable sensation of sliding down them on snow, whether on two planks or one, in all the students who have never tried winter sports before; and to foster a life-long passion for the mountains in them. 

But if winter-sports are to be a life-long pursuit, then we need to do what we can in order to ensure that there will still be snow in the decades to come. The POW Hot Planet/Cool Athletes programme aims to educate students on climate change, the greatest threat faced by their generation, and empower them to address it. Surval will be visited by POW volunteer, Luc Heering, who was born in our canton of Vaud, growing up on skis and going on to study International Sports Management & Business in Amsterdam; and POW Athletes Alliance member, Caroline George, a mountaineer and backcountry skier and mountain guide. The visit falls on the Friday after Ski Week, by which time every student in the school will have experienced the sensation of skiing or snowboarding on fresh snow – and hopefully be passionate about learning how to play their part in helping to preserve it for generations to come.

 

• Fox, Porter. Deep: the Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow. Rink House Productions, 2013.

• https://protectourwinters.org/about-us/

• https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2004/11/11/a-canary-in-the-coal-mine

• https://www.geocaching.com/geocache/GC2ATK0_rock-fall-at-eiger?guid=9b904190-b2d3-45c7-878b-02328c604abe

• https://lithub.com/mary-shelleys-frankenstein/

• https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/01/11/thawing-permafrost-matters/

• https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/12/1112-melting-glaciers-mean-double-trouble-for-water-supplies/

• https://www.caixinglobal.com/2018-11-20/chinas-rapidly-retreating-glaciers-threaten-asias-water-supply-101349937.html

• https://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/full/10.1175/2009JAMC1810.1

• https://www.thelocal.ch/20170217/swiss-study-snow-to-largely-disappear-from-alps-by-2100

• https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969713008188

• https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/9789264031692-sum-en.pdf?expires=1547197569&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=361739D7483EA7615F10A34F22408D13

• https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/87753/spring-snow-cover-in-the-alps