In this entry, Dawid Piątek from the Soil Erosion team reflects on the relationship between skiing and erosion.

Skiing in the Carpathians has been developing for a long time. It started with a huge investment: the cable car from Kuźnice (part of the Zakopane city) to the peak of Kasprowy Wierch Mt. The Kasprowy Wierch cabin car was completed in record time, time that even today seems impossible. The construction began on 1 August 1935 and 227 days later first passengers entered the Kasprowy Wierch Mt. The cable car construction met with huge protests of scientific and tourist organizations and broke many regulations, e.g., the Nature Conservation Act and the Construction law. But on the other hand, till now, the cabin car is the only way for people with disabilities or elderly people to reach the only alpine area in Poland and admire the beauty of the Tatra Mts.

In the HES-GEO project, we are investigating the impact of skiing on soil erosion (incl. subsurface component) within the SOIL EROSION team.

Nowadays, many disputes about the future of skiing in the Tatra Mts. are undertaken. Naturalists argue with the Polish Cable Transportation (Polskie Koleje Liniowe – PKL) authorities about the development of ski lifts and using artificial snowmaking. The Tatra Mts. is protected as a national park (Tatrzański Park Narodowy – Tatra National Park) since the 1950s and a ski season on the Kasprowy Wierch Mt. is limited due to nature conservation. The main problem relates to the thickness of the snow cover. If there is not enough snow, alpine vegetation can be destroyed and erosion processes may become aggravated. The solution could be snowmaking, which would also extend the ski season. However, it would damage local water resources and change water and soil chemistry. For today, the naturalists’ arguments win and the ski infrastructure is not developed in the Tatra Mts.

Cable car station at Kasprowy Wierch peak

But in the lower part of the Carpathians, especially in the Beskidy Mts., skiing is also a real environmental threat. There are 56 big ski resorts and many smaller ski lifts. The total area of ski runs in 56 ski resorts exceed 9 km2. What’s more, every resort uses artificial snowmaking. Due to the geological structure, snowmaking may not cause such changes in soil chemistry like in the Tatra Mts., but it increases runoff. The area of ski runs is a perfect place to occur water erosion. The problem increases when the vegetation cover is discontinuous. Generally, in the entire Beskidy Mts., 23% of the ski runs are deprived of vegetation. However, in some ski resorts situation is much worse.

Erosion on the ski trail

In the Szczyrk Mountains Resort, the biggest Polish ski resort, which is located on the Skrzyczne range, the highest part of Beskidy Śląski Mts., 55% of the ski runs are devoid of vegetation. When this shortage of vegetation meets intense forestry, trekking and mountain biking, the Skrzyczne range becomes one of the most erosion-threatened areas in the Polish Carpathians. Moreover, artificial snowmaking not only leads to intensive runoff. The research conducted in the area of Kotelnica Białczańska Ski resort (the biggest resort in the Tatra Foothills, the second biggest in Poland), proved that water from artificial snow leads to severe damages in the stream network. It causes headward and bank erosion and it destroys environmental cycles in small streams in the headwater system

Skrzyczne ski centre

Skiing is a very playful and thrilling sport, but the maintenance of ski resorts can severely damage the environment. Especially nowadays, in the times of climate change with shorter winters and in the times when leisure becomes more and more important, the impact of skiing on the environment is increasing. In Poland, we particularly need changes in the enforcement of nature conservation laws because most of the ski resorts are in protected areas The balance between tourism and the environment is a challenge that needs to be sought by all stakeholders involved, including local authorities, entrepreneurs, skiers and researchers.

Dawid Piątek is a geographer, geomorphologist and a PhD student in the Institute of Geography and Spatial Management, Jagiellonian University.