GENEVA (AP) – Spring blossoms are popping up all over the Austrian Alps. Geneva’s official chestnut tree has sprouted leaves and flowers. And Swedes are picking mushrooms.

The same question is on everyone’s minds: Is winter in Europe to be canceled this year?

Green fields, not white slopes, have greeted visitors to some of Europe’s most popular ski resorts as December began with remarkably little snow.

The ski industry is sweating it out, desperately trying to entice tourists with spa weekends and Christmas markets, and encouraging visitors to bring hiking shoes and enjoy “the extension of autumn.”

Though snow is expected throughout the Alps over the weekend, more warm temperatures are predicted next week, which will likely melt the “white gold.”

The sports clothing sector is scrambling to sell its winter collections. And cafes that had put away their terrace furniture are kicking themselves.

Fruit producers are also alarmed: Fruit trees now in bloom will have their flowers damaged later by winter frost, which could result in no fruit for the year.

Though ski resorts are nervous, the economic impact isn’t severe yet because it’s early in the season, said Veronique Kanel of the Swiss national tourist board. The busiest period for most European ski resorts is over the Christmas break and after, she said.

Most foreign tourists made their reservations in advance, Kanel said. It’s day tourism that has been affected as many slopes are still closed.

In a good winter, November can account for over 10 percent of hotel nights booked in an entire season, according to Switzerland Tourism. December can account for nearly 14 percent. Switzerland Tourism said numbers for this season were still unavailable.

But Kanel said tour operators have indicated the number of reservations for the Christmas holidays are now equal to or superior to last year.

Ski resorts across Europe are promoting alternative attractions such as skating, thermal baths, hiking and curling.

The United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization says the Alps are two-thirds below seasonal average of snow. Temperatures from Norway to the Mediterranean are up to 5 degrees warmer than normal.

Austria’s Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics announced this week that global warming has driven temperatures in the Alps to their highest in 1,300 years.

Many cities have been basking in the sun. Geneva’s chestnut – the city’s official “herald of spring” – has already sprouted blossoms, buds and leaves. Meteorologists in Salzburg said Friday was the warmest Dec. 8 since World War II – the mercury rose to 66.5 degrees in the city of Mozart’s birth.

In Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and France, lower altitude ski runs remain desperately green.

Many resorts have postponed their opening dates, some as late as Dec. 23. High-altitude ski stations such as Zermatt offer little more than glaciers or narrow strips of artificial snow running down tawny mountain sides.

“It’s abnormal but it’s an abnormality which seems to be occurring more and more,” said Bernard Saunier of the French national weather service.

Wilma Himmelfreundpointner of the St. Anton Tourist Office in Austria said the resort can normally blanket 80 percent of its slopes using snowmaking machines but not when mountainside meadows are blooming.

Even if the air temperature drops close enough to freezing for the snow machines to work, the ground is too warm for the snow to stay. And without snow, sunlight is absorbed into the ground and warms it.

In Oberhof – Germany’s top training area for winter sports like ski jumping, bobsled and biathlon – the “snowphone” has been repeating the same message since Nov. 6: “As soon as the snow returns, we will keep you up to date” on ski conditions.

“It’s really worrisome,” said German meteorologist Gerd Saalfrank.

In Italy’s Cortina d’Ampezzo resort, just one slope in the 90-mile system is open to skiers, said Gianfranco Talamini of the Skipass office.

Central England had the warmest fall since records began in 1659. Britons have been surprised by spring flowers brightening their gardens and the tardy migration of many birds. Meteorologists predict average temperatures for December, January and February will also be higher than normal.

In Rome, some tourists are still wearing sleeveless T-shirts.

World Cup competitions are suffering as well – three alpine ski events have been canceled, and organizers spent five days trucking in snow to Hochfilzen, Austria, for one event.

“Whoever believes we are going into deep weather problems is wrong – because we are already in the middle of it,” said Guenther Hujara, director of the men’s alpine World Cup.

Average snow levels are half what they were 40 years ago and winter is shorter, said Omar Baddour of the U.N. weather agency.

Stephan Bader, a climatologist with the Swiss federal meteorological institute, warned that while extreme temperatures like the record summer of 2003 used to occur only once every 100 years, they will happen every two or three years in the next century.

But global warming isn’t the only reason for the lack of snow, said Christine Pielmeier of the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Davos. Warm winds, known as “foehn,” are frequently coming from the south, melting the snow.

Not everyone is suffering, however.

Norway’s Hemsedal resort has plenty of snow and has garnered a World Cup ski event canceled in Switzerland, as well as extra bookings from tourists and training ski teams.

But elsewhere in Scandinavia, snow has been scarce. A newspaper in Umea, northern Sweden, recently reported findings of chanterelle mushrooms, normally seen in early fall. Even Moscow’s temperatures are above freezing.

Spain’s northern ski resorts have had a break. A 12-hour storm came Wednesday with enough snow to kickstart the ski season.

Despite the warm temperatures, Alpine lore presages a cold winter.

“The onions have more layers of skin, which are also thicker, and that means it’s going to get really cold,” said Madeleine Villard, 81, of Motte-d’Aveillans, France.

AP-ES-12-08-06 1459EST

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