Italy’s Vanishing Snow

By Massimo Basano, an Italian artisan and writer

For those born within the lines of the two tropics, the relationship that binds men to the snow will always remain a mystery, but in the north of Italy, where I live, it is a key link for the balance of natural cycles.

Until twenty years ago, snow appeared in early December and it kept coming, with varying intensity, until the end of winter. For at least two months nature laid under a soft white blanket that protected it from winter’s harshness and guarded its annual rest. Then the snow appeared less and less, until it disappeared completely for an entire decade. Today, winter has become an incongruous season, characterized by mild temperatures and brief periods of heavy frost.

Global warming is accelerating. According to the farmers’ association Colidretti, 2014 was the hottest year in Italian history since measurement began in 1880. Our snow is no more. Snow was an essential component of our ecosystem; it protected nature from freezing temperatures and provided water and nutrients for plant growth. It also regulated the flow of the rivers during the spring thaw and contributed to water reserves for summer drought. The lack of snow thus leads directly to drought.

Without snow, plants awaken early, making them vulnerable to intense frosts, and fueling the growth of fungal infections and insects that damage crops. According to Colidretti, climate change has already had serious effects on Made in Italy harvests, which in 2014 shrank 35 percent for Italian olive oil, 15 percent for wine, and up to 50 percent for honey, while the harvest of chestnuts experienced a record low.

(Editorial note: Imagine this problem in a country like Pakistan, impoverished and wartorn, with a population three times that of Italy. Freshwater distribution problems there are raising tensions daily. Over 80% of the flow of the country’s most important river, the Indus, comes from glacial and snow melt. Or in Peru, where 40% of glaciers’ surface area has disappeared since the 70s, and where the huge Rio Santo is running low on Andean glacial melt. Peru’s retreating ice exposes metal-rich rocks for the first time in many thousands or even millions of years. Meltwater then carries toxic heavy metals, like lead, arsenic, iron, and cadmium from the rocks to the rivers and soil downstream. The problem is advancing faster than expected, and is projected to affect the entire Andean region, including Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Experts in California, meanwhile, say the state is experiencing its worst drought in 1,200 years, and its snowpack accumulation is at 5% of its historical average.)

Rising temperatures in northern Italy counterintuitively do not cause hotter summers. During the last two years, summer tempartures were below average, due to frequent and violent storms. The storms do not solve the problem of drought, as violent rainfall does not penetrate the soil but rather washes it away, degrading it.

Today, science proves the close relationship between climate change and human intervention in natural systems, through the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), deforestation, and landfilling. Despite increasingly dramatic consequences, man continues to alter the balance of nature for short-term, selfish interest. The will to stop these interventions and rebuild a positive and balanced relationship with the environment still seems to lack.

The lack of snow is just the alarm bell in the deterioration of our relationship with nature, which remains an integral part of our being, and on which we remain dependent. Perhaps this is why, every winter, if some first small snow does come, you can hear us shouting, “IT’S SNOWING!,” smiling, raising our eyes to the sky.