Dating back to the summer of 2005, Europeans have attempted to halt summer snowmelt on glaciated ski resorts everywhere from Switzerland to Germany by using a glacial blanket. Yes, there's such a thing as a Snuggie for glaciers. It's a reflective and heat-blocking polyester shelter that's believed to reduce the vanishing of high mountain ice by 60 percent.
This July, the Presena Glacier above Italy's Passo del Tonale ski area donned the cover-up, a 970,000-square-foot sunshade. Between 1993 and 2003, the Presena lost up to 39 percent of its mass. When the cover was removed this September, the glacier was hit by rain above 6,000 feet, which delayed the ski resort's opening day. But on Oct. 23, Passo del Tonale opened for the winter season and the resort projects full operation until June 19, 2011 -- and then it's back to the covers.
Aguille Rouge in Les Arcs, France, also tried the blanket method this summer, which came with a 30,000 Euro price tag. The size of the patch only covered a hundredth of the entire glacier, but two months with the cover is believed to have saved approximately three feet of the Aguille Rouge's thickness. Not bad for a miniature band-aid.
But not every resort is convinced. The Mont Fort glacier above Verbier, Switzerland, no longer offers summer skiing, even after using the covers for two summers. "We used this system, but not anymore," says Caroline Perraudin, a representative from Verbier. "We won approximately two meters, but in the end, this is insignificant."
And in some places, the blankets actually caused melting, like in the case of the glacier du Grand Motte in Tignes, France. During the summer of 2006, the tarpaulin used was porous, allowing dirt and grime to color the surface. So the swathe acted like an asphalt parking lot, absorbing heat with its black surface. Improvements have been made since 2006 and project managers have experimented with other materials, including hemp.
"The covers aren't actually failing at all, they were just never meant to solve the real problem," says Lea Hartl, a graduate student studying glaciers at the University of Innsbruck. The real problem, of course, is global warming. The covers are meant to preserve patches of snow at ski areas, not reverse climate change. "[The covers] are simply a way to help glacier resorts stay open and reduce operating costs," Hartl says. "They do not in any way address anything else. If anyone thinks they can save the glaciers this way, they are misinformed."