Snow forecast – how to predict the weather in the Alps!

01/14/2016 - Selina Sauerland

Every winter sports fan is driven by the same questions: when will the snow fall and for how long will it lie? SnowTrex has questioned climatologist Alexander Orlik on how the weather conditions and snow will develop in the European mountains.

Walls of snow, like these seen here along the Timmelsjoch High Alpine Road, are a rather rare phenomenon. © Timmelsjoch/Pertl

One of the most crucial questions asked each winter is regarding the expected snowfall. Currently, the Alpine Republic of Austria is concerned with this question, as well as Switzerland, western France and northern Italy, all of which are the homes to numerous ski resorts and are economically dependent on the so-called “white gold.” Institutions, such as the Central Institution for Meteorology and Geodynamics (ZAMG – Zentralanstalt für Meteorologie und Geodynamik) in Vienna, Austria, are working intensely with this question, determining how precipitation in the Alpine regions will develop within the coming years. Alexander Orlik, a climatologist at the ZAMG, must first disappoint all those who love the snow. Even experts cannot precisely predict the snowfall for the coming winter: “Weather prognoses are generally only reliable for the next three to four days. To some extent, reliable trends like ‘above average warm/cold/dry/humid weather’ are, depending on the weather conditions, possibly able to be predicted for the next one to two weeks.” However, any longer is simply out of the question. If and when it will snow this winter can therefore not be completely answered.

Regardless, the ZAMG has been working hard to evaluate the data of the „European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts” for the coming few months and years, and have focused on Austria, as the four climatic influences from the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the North Sea and the continental east meet together above the complex peaks of the Alps. Orlik’s sobering conclusion: „The results are under no circumstances able to help decide your holiday.” What is definite is that there will continue to be winters with lots of snow, but its presence will shift due to the climate change.

According to the Austrian Progress Report for 2014* (Österreichischen Sachstandsbericht 2014*), the perpetuity of snow cover in areas with an altitude between 1,000 – 2,000 m will most likely diminish. It will not necessarily snow less, but the snow will melt faster. The snow line is expected to move approx. 200 m higher. Artificial snow is already more than just a superficial ally in piste preparation, and soon it may even be the deciding factor in low-lying mountain range ski resorts’ ability to operate.

Snowy Outlooks

Despite the climate change, snowfall should remain constant for the next few years. Science confirms that days with snowfall will decrease within the coming years and that the snow line will move up from its middle position to an even higher altitude. However, after a certain altitude, even mild winters cannot prevent snowfall. According to Orlik, the best example comes from the winter of 2013/2014: “It was the second-warmest winter in Austria on record since 1767. At the same time, this winter had also brought extreme volumes of snow to the southern Austria, with numerous street and train blockages. In total, over 10,000 homes were without power for several days. In Gailtal, Carinthia, and in East Tyrol’s Lienz, for example, there was more snowfall than had been seen in decades, with 73 cm of fresh snow recorded falling between 30 and 31 of January in Lienz.”

Alternate Predictions

The most reliable sources are, without a doubt, the meteorological analyses of the experts. In comparison to scientific methods, there are also diverse alternative methods available for weather prediction that appeal to one or two weathermen and women. A traditional variation is the „Centennial Calendar“ (Hundertjährige Kalender): in the 17th century, an abbot from the Langheim Abbey near Kulmbach, Germany, spent seven years observing the weather, which, according to him, repeats itself every seven years. His calendar became so popular that it spread out to many regions all across Europe. However, according to the climatologist Orlik, the abbot’s early method of calculation was in no way of scientific relevance: “The Centennial Calendar is based on nothing more than seven years of weather observation in a specific location in Germany. After scientific investigation, the data recorded proves to be of mere statistical coincidence.”


No one can really provide an infallible rule about snowfall. A certain trend can only be seen using various methods, and snowfall can only be predicted short term. Due to the climate change, the snow lines are moving and the weather is always a gamble. Nevertheless: even when it is uncertain, when and how bountiful the snow will fall – it will fall and allow for winter sports to take place in the Alps for at least the next few decades.

*Source: Österreichischer Sachstandsbericht Klimawandel 2014, volume 2, chapter 2, page 415.

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  • Thursday, 14. January 2016
  • author: Selina Sauerland
  • category: Press
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