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Flowers in Alps, Bears Can't Sleep as Winter Waits

by: Alexandra Zawadil    3 December 2006

VIENNA, Dec 3 (Reuters) - Flowers are blooming on the slopes of Alpine ski resorts and bears are having trouble hibernating in Siberia amid a late start to winter that may be a portent of global warming.

Rare December pollen is troubling asthma sufferers as far north as Scandinavia, sales of winter clothing are down and Santa Claus is having to reassure children his sleigh will take off on Christmas Eve, snow or no snow.

From Ottawa to Moscow, temperatures have been way above average at the start of the winter in the northern hemisphere -- with exceptions including a rare snowstorm in Dallas, Texas.

Like many places, Austria has had the mildest autumn since records began and many ski resorts have delayed the season's start. Snow cannons are idling on green slopes that would usually be pistes, shrinking the billion-dollar winter business.

"The mountain peaks are shining white -- but not white enough that we can expect skiers to go there," said Martin Ebster, tourism director of St. Anton in the Arlberg ski resort, which postponed the season start to next weekend.

Meteorologists have recorded the azure trumpet-shaped Alpine gentian flower as high as 1,100 metres (3,609 ft) in the Austrian Alps, and the vernal forsythia in some valleys.

Yet even though glaciers are receding and snows are getting less predictable, all is not gloom for the resorts.


At Austria's Ischgl, which relies heavily on nightlife and counted Paris Hilton and rock star Pink among visitors last season, 25 percent of pistes are open and bars are crowded.

And the Soelden resort, where the first ski race of the World Cup season had to be cancelled in October, now has enough snow to step in for France's Val d'Isere and Swiss St. Moritz, which may have to scrap next weekend's races.

"The start in the skiing season was certainly not a success," said Daniela Baer, spokeswoman for Switzerland Tourism. "But on the other hand we had an extremely strong September and October. The summer season was just extended."

The Swiss Retail association said the warmth contributed to a 3.4 percent year-on-year fall in September sales of clothes and shoes because of low sales of winter clothing.

Warm weather also helps keep a lid on energy prices because of low heating demand.

And from Siberia to Estonia, bears have had trouble going to sleep for their winter hibernation because their hideaways are uncomfortably warm, soggy and damp.

Renowned for frosty winters, Moscow started the calendar winter on Dec. 1 with the warmest December day since records began in 1879 -- 4.5 degrees Celsius (40.1 Fahrenheit).

Snows are also late in Rovaniemi near the Arctic Circle in Finland where Finns believe Santa Claus has his headquarters.

Contacted in Rovaniemi, a jovial man who identified himself as Santa said: "I'm not worried...There will so much snow and frost that people will whine that it is too cold."

"The sleigh will slide this year too. The sleigh will slide on Christmas Eve this year, even if there was no snow at all."

The Norwegian Meteorological Institute says it will start measuring pollen -- mainly from hazel trees -- on Monday for the first time before New Year as a service to asthma sufferers.

Many scientists say a single warm winter is most likely part of the natural variations of an unpredictable climate. Still, years of mild temperatures fit predictions of global warming, widely blamed on human use of fossil fuels.

"It's warmer, it starts snowing later, and the snow disappears earlier," said Karl Gabl of the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics in Innsbruck, Tyrolia.

"We believe recent years of unusual warmth are linked to human activities and global warming," said Ketil Isaksen, a climate researcher at the Norwegian Metereological Institute.

If it continues in coming decades, global warming could be the death knell of many low ski resorts.

The U.N. Environment Programme warned in 2003 that rising temperatures, widely blamed on emissions from power plants, factories and cars -- were likely to raise the snow line steadily higher up mountains and cripple low-lying ski resorts.