A few decades ago, skiing was the preserve of the wealthy. But now, it is one of the most popular leisure activities in Europe, and we have all become used to having our annual ski break. In addition, many of us have invested in chalets and apartments in favourite resorts, to which we return year after year.
The inconvenient truth, however, is that climate change is now messing with our annual plans on the pistes. Last year, the ski season was cut short by lack of snow in many of the most popular areas, with the Alps seeing one of its warmest winters ever.
Such is the problem that according to some sources, increasing global temperatures mean that we'll be saying goodbye to the traditional ski holiday in as little as 30 years. Snowfall is expected to lessen dramatically, with only high-level resorts seeing anywhere near the amounts needed for skiing, while there are fears that lower-lying resorts may suffer as a result.
It's a gloomy prognosis, but one that Dr Martin Beniston, professor of climate research at the University of Geneva, says we'll have to get used to it. "We've been seeing increasingly mild winters since the 1980s, but 2006 was extremely mild with half the usual snowfall," he says. "As we'll see this more regularly in future, so we already know how it will affect the resorts."
Dr Beniston's research shows only ski communities above around 2,000 metres will be able to claim guaranteed snow in the future, while resorts below 1,500 metres might not see any snow at all – and when he talks of "the future", he's talking about 30 to 50 years' time; which means that places such as Gstaad, Kitzbühel and Cortina might well find it hard to run viable ski trades, with some countries losing their industry altogether.
Around half of Italy's resorts are below 1,300 metres, with many eastern European resorts at less than 1,000 metres, such as Kranjska Goran in Slovenia and Bansko in Bulgaria. "Austrian resorts are much lower than Switzerland's, so they're more at risk and the Bavarian Alps in Germany will also be affected," says Beniston.
Because Alpine countries have a vested interest in winter sports, they're now taking this research very seriously. Dr Beniston claims many resorts will have to diversify into other forms of tourism, such as hiking and mountain biking.
So where should you purchase a property if you want to be assured of skiing? Anywhere above around 1,800 metres should be safe in the long run, which includes places such as Courcheval 1850, Van Thorens and Saas Fee. Many of the newer, purpose-built resorts are also at higher altitudes, including Flaine, Les Arcs and Avoriaz. The Rockies is another location to consider, with Utah, Aspen, and Jackson Hole being above 2,000 metres, although low-level Whistler may lose its cachet along with its snow. You'll also need to factor in this equation: that by flying so far to reach these resorts, you're adding to the problem.
Despite this, the ski industry is optimistic. Didier Bobillier of the Serre Chevalier Skiable company, which is partowned by major resort operator Compagnie Des Alpes, points out that snow patterns often vary. He says the 2005 season saw record amounts of good snow across the Alps and that last year, reports of poor snow were exaggerated.
"Serre-Chevalier had good snow from 15 December last year, and we were fully open," say Bobillier. "The southern Alps saw snow but the northern Alps didn't and that's where all the famous resorts are. So it was reported that the whole Alpine region was suffering."
Contacts: Maison Individuelle (01707 376 255; www.maisonindividuelle.co.uk); Erna Low (020-7590 1624; www.ernalowproperty.co.uk); MGM (020-7494 0706; www.mgm-constructeur.com); Pure International (020-7331 4500; www.pureintl.com)
* A resort may be at low altitude but can offer skiing at high levels. Banff in Canada is at 1,380m but offers skiing to 2,730m. Chamonix is at 1,035m but you can ski to 3,840m.
* Resorts in France at higher altitude include areas of Les Arcs, La Plagne 1800 and Courchevel 1850, Val D'Isere and Van Thorens, which at 2,300 metres is the highest in Europe.
* High-altitude resorts in Italy include Cervinia and Livigno. In Switzerland higher resorts are Saas Fe and Arosa.
* North America will only see reliable snow in high resort areas of the Rockies, such as Aspen, Breckenridge and Heavenly, while Whistler is below the reliable snowline.
* Japan often has good snow, in its Chubu and Hokkaido regions, as do New Zealand and Argentina, but you'll need to offset the ability to ski with the long-haul flights to get there.
* Resorts in Eastern Europe are often low-level. Bansko is at just 871m, though Pamporovo is higher at 1,650m.
*Several companies are targeting the area of Serre-Chevalier, in the French Alps. MGM has apartments and chalets on sale here from £160,500
*Properties in the low-lying resort of Fernie, British Columbia, can be used all year. They are on sale through Pure International, from £299,000
*Chalets in the Alpin development in the Swiss resort of Crans Montana are on sale through Erna Low, from £1.03m
*The French resort of Tignes is at a high altitude, and property in MGM's new development is on sale from £245,000Reuse content