Impact of ski piste management on mountain grassland ecosystems in the Southern Alps
Casagrande Bacchiocchi S
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In the Southern Alps, climate warming induced the use of artificial snow since two decades. In this area, two different ski piste management practices prevail: (1) large and medium ski resorts (M), which guarantee a ski season of four to five months using artificial snow, whereas (2) in the small, local ski resorts (S) it usually lasts two or three months. Our research addresses two main questions: 1) what is the impact of the ski pistes on the physico-chemical properties of the snow, on the soil and on the vegetation of mountain grassland ecosystems and 2) does the impact on the mountain grassland ecosystems change between medium and small ski resorts? Our experimental approach follows a pairwise design of plots on mountain grasslands of the ski pistes and control plots on mountain grasslands outside the pistes, where we examined the snow and soil properties and the vegetation composition. Under the long ski-season management (M) we found a significantly lower soil temperature below the snow cover of the ski pistes than the one below the natural snowpack, but this difference was limited to the period of natural snow cover. Only in M, pistes showed a lower biomass production and species richness in the mountain grassland plant communities compared to the controls, while there was no effect in S. The proportions of plant functional groups' cover changed in both ski resort types between piste and control. The most important factors affecting the observed differences in vegetation between pistes and controls were snow duration, snow and soil chemical properties, with more marked differences in the soil properties in M respect to S. The study concludes that reducing the ski season's length, therefore limiting the artificial snow's input, as in S, is more adequate to minimize the environmental impact in a changing climate.