The value of snow data for tourism

Daniel Meppiel
Jan 10, 2020 · 5 min read

Since last century, snow sustains a ski tourism industry worth more than $5 billion just in the USA. Its seasonal swings dictates the calendar for summer and winter outdoor activities that generate roughly €50 billion turnover in the European Alps yearly.

With such an impact, monitoring the white gold’s presence and depth as well as forecasting its arrival has become a crucial activity in the major mountain touristic destinations. This is not only to keep us entertained and safe, but to sustain the rich economic tissue and population living in these regions.

So, in this context, how does near real-time snow data create value for tourism throughout the seasons?

In Winter: from ski resort selection to soft activity planning

Selecting the ski resort with the best snow conditions is a priority for users seeking to maximize the value for the money. This is the premise based on which resorts do publish snow reports (such as this one of Zermatt) and several websites and apps offer reports comparing conditions in multiple resorts and “powder alerts” (such as OpenSnow or OnTheSnow). These often remain general at ski-resort level.

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A ski app prototype powered by near real-time snow data © WeGaw

Accurate, detailed and near real-time snow data on metrics such as extent, depth and recent snowfall can help users not just to choose the ski resort for their holidays, but to maximize the day’s fun by choosing the right area and slopes.

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Villars Tourism Office website integrates near real-time snow data for snowshoeing trails.

Furthermore, for foot activities such as snowshoeing, snow data helps choosing the right trail with enough depth throughout the entire way — or the right approach for a ski-mountaineering day.

In Autumn & Spring: safely adapting to climate change

In 2016, a study carried on by the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF showed that compared to 1970, the average length of the snow season in the Alps decreased by 37 days. That’s more than a month — and these are just averages for any given elevation, with some lower altitude areas virtually deprived from any snow at all when compared to 1970.

For the Alpine ski industry […] this is potentially an extinction-level event […] down the mountains, the disappearance of snow has already begun to devastate the ski industry, as well as the communities that rely on it. Full article at The Guardian.

The impact on the global ski industry is unfolding, as voices raise to take adaptation measures to preserve the way of life of the affected population. Among such measures it is proposed to further develop Autumn and Spring tourism based on the raising opportunity for non-snow outdoor activities — as, for example, this study in the Swiss Alps shows (version in French or German).

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Assessment of snow conditions along a hiking trail (Source: DeFROST)

This new adaptation opportunity raises new questions and challenges: during Autumn, it can still snow at any time, while during spring, the snow melting processes make any activity area safe only gradually. Precise data on snow conditions play a key role in reassuring, raising awareness and securing a population which is unaware, reluctant or uncertain about practicing traditional summer activities during the traditional off-season periods.

In addition, snow data can greatly help touristic destinations during the planning phase of new touristic product development, helping them choose optimal areas for new trails.

In Summer: avoiding treacherous snow patches

While most people do not expect finding snow along their hiking trail in the summer months, this isn’t actually an exceptional event and still causes up to 6% of fatal and non-fatal accidents on average every summer— and althought this may seem small, the absolute numbers cannot be neglected (e.g. about 40 accidents/year in Austria and 86 accidents/year in Switzerland).

Crossing a snow patch in the Pacific Crest Trail (CA, USA) during summer.

Hard snowpacks pose a great risk of falling which can often prove fatal. Either due to high altitude and low sun exposure of some locations or an excepcionally snowy late winter, these snowpacks can remain well into the summer season. I found myself in such a situation during the early summer season few years ago near Pontresina, Switzerland: crossing a very exposed but relatively small snowpack which I could not expect and I lived as a near-death experience. My hiking companion luckily helped me out.

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Snow (in blue) as detected in satellite data allows choosing a safer hiking route.

Accurate and timely snow data has a great potential to help avoiding such dangerous trail sections during summer. As an example, the image above depicts the snow near Mount Etna, Italy, making the western ascension a much more reasonable choice. Such snow can be precisely monitored and mapped daily using satellite data.

New snow data requirements in the digital era

Snow data is already generated today in many formats, shapes and flavours. However, its applicability remains crippled due to low resolution, low update frequency, or low integrability with other systems.

Comparison of snow extent mismatch for the same day and area between snow models and observations

In order for snow data to provide the most value in outdoor tourism applications today and in the future, there is no doubt that this has to come in digital format, meeting the following minimum requirements:

  • The resolution at which the snow extent is mapped has to be high enough, ideally higher than 50 meters, and be based on actual observations.
  • Not just the snow extent, but the depth must also be mapped — as it may be easy to traverse a 1cm deep fresh snowfield or impossible if this is knee-deep, requiring different equipment and experience levels.
  • The snow extent and depth mapping is updated as frequently as possible, but at least daily.
  • The snow data can be easily visualized and seamlessly integrated in any application, system and/or platform.
  • It has to cover the entire world, avoiding the complexity of using and integrating multiple providers for different geographies.

In conclusion, such snow data would make everyone in the tourism industry win now and prepare for the future; including the destinations, the service & content providers and of course, the end user.

At WeGaw, our mission is to deliver a solution meeting and exceeding the above requirements — which you can already access and explore at DeFROST.io .

WeGaw

Near-real-time snow monitoring from space

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