The mountains are asking for a conscious transition

The MountResilience project is part of the EU Mission on adaptation to climate change, and is led by the Agrarian and Environmental Science Department at the University of Milan, through its centre of excellence, UNIMONT, an integral part of Horizon Europe, a research and development framework programme.

The project's initial proposal is to collect wide-ranging information, data, case histories and scientific evidence, in order to implement intelligent Big Data to prepare models and simulations of possible adaptation methods. The goal is to identify and test new technologies and approaches that could help with adaptation to climate change and increase the resilience of local communities. 
We met with Anna Giorgi, a full professor, the Rector's Delegate for the promotion of activities to develop mountain areas and Manager of the UNIMONT Centre.

What are the main goals of the MountResilience project?

"There are many goals for the MountResilience project, and the scope of application is equally vast and diversified. It aims to make the most of territorial diversity to bring together a wide range of perspectives, knowledge and experiences. 47 partner organisations are involved, coming from 12 European countries: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, France, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Romania, Spain, Switzerland. The multidisciplinary approach is fundamental to create a varied portfolio of proposals and tools for adaptation to climate change, and to maximise its potential for replicability in different countries and contexts. The mountainous areas of Finland and Romania show very different findings and challenges; our first task is to create a system out of disconnected experiences and data.
Water resources and tourism management are the most immediate, evident critical focus areas. Two closely interconnected elements.

Water management involves agriculture and livestock farming, but also tourism connected to snow and ice, the production of hydroelectric energy and the supply of drinking water. 

Thanks to the use of Big Data and machine learning algorithms, it is possible to carry out historical climate analysis, including precipitation, and develop projected models of future seasons.

Meanwhile, sensor systems monitor the state of surface-level and underground water resources, showing trends and the availability of water in order to predict when and if it is necessary to intervene. 

The use of technology and AI is crucial: digital platforms collect and process data and information from many sources, and provide strategies and action plans for the efficient use of resources in real time. We define this process as "decision making pulse". The instruction of this platform is the preserve of our Swiss partners."

Skiing on slopes with artificial snow has already been a common practice for winter tourism for decades, but it raises concerns regarding environmental pollution and the consumption of resources. In order to keep slopes covered with snow, enormous quantities of water and energy are used.
According to CIPRA - the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps, around 95 million m3 of water and 600 gigawatt hours of energy are consumed during a winter season, with a significant economic cost. Artificial snow is also heavier and has lower insulating capacity than natural snow, and can cause the ground to freeze and asphyxiate plants. A clear consequence of this is the delay often seen in vegetative activity in areas with artificial snow.

At a high altitude, an increasing number of water collection and storage basins are being built for rainwater or meltwater, in order to use it during the winter for snow cannons. Sometimes, in emergencies, bizarre solutions are explored, such as transporting snow by helicopter, as seen in Cortina in 2022. 

In the context of studying solutions to reduce the environmental impact of artificial snow, we are considering the use of renewable energy sources to power facilities, and practices to recycle and reuse the water used in the cannons.
An interesting experiment was carried out during the Olympics in China, where sophisticated refrigeration technologies were introduced using natural CO2, powered by clean energy. This allowed them to significantly reduce the carbon emissions associated with the process of cooling water, and reduce energy consumption. A system was also implemented to collect the water from the artificial snow and channel it into local tanks, allowing it to be recovered and reused.

How much does the production of artificial snow affect the mountain ecosystem?

"The issue of artificial snow is extremely delicate.
Throughout the Alps, the places with the most important ski facilities, which have historically based their economies on skiing and related businesses, are also the best known. And this type of tourism is still substantial, despite the fact that climate change and energy costs are making the sport more and more expensive. Closing everything would have an economic and ideological impact that is not currently manageable. 
On the other hand, snow cannons are becoming increasingly high-performance and efficient, in terms of water and energy, and today they also work at milder temperatures than in the past.

Although we have the support of predictive models and preventative intervention tools, it is still necessary in parallel to promote collective lifestyle changes. We cannot restore the environment to how it was before climate change. 

Temperatures and biodiversity are destined to continue to change: reindeer farms in Finland are suffering heavy repercussions, and the population has been living off this meat for centuries. Romania too, which bases a large part of its economy on livestock farming, is seeing a change in the composition of pastures, with many herders who venture to increasingly high ground, while others are abandoning the activity.

And if skiing is no longer a sport that can easily be practised below 2000 metres, local communities will have to find a way to move towards a transformation of their economic model, providing different services that allow people to enjoy their time in the mountains. Our task is also to support the conversion of economic models where ski facilities no longer have a future: promoting intelligent adaptation that pursues general wellbeing, sometimes ignoring short-term or vested interests"


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