A Response to the Caring for our Australian Alps Catchements Report

October 12th, 2011

What does the future hold for Australia’s alpine climate? Image:: Perisher

The Grasshopper

The Australian Alps will experience dramatic reductions in snow cover over the next forty years if nothing is done to reduce carbon emissions.

That’s one of the messages from a report released a few days ago by the Federal Government’s Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency called Caring for our Australian Alps Catchments.

Among other things, the report highlights that, by 2050, temperatures across the Alps could rise by between 0.6 and 2.9 degrees, depending on whether humanity gets its act together to curb emissions or continues with business as usual.

A high emissions scenario could also mean a reduction in rainfall across the Alps of about one quarter, and a 96 per cent reduction in the area covered by snow for 60 days or more in a season by 2050.

We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children

You don’t need to be a climate scientist to work out that if those predictions come to pass we’ll be looking at some fairly tough times for snow-lovers in Australia by the middle of the century. Most of us will probably have hung up the skis by then, but it means our children or grandchildren might never really know what it’s like to ski or board in Australia.

Snowmaking is already the mainstay of the Australian snow industry. Image:: Buller

But this report, while stating some important home truths for one of the first Australian industries that will really suffer from climate change, isn’t really saying anything new. In fact if you search out the report you will see that it’s relying on research that’s between two and eight years old. That doesn’t make it ‘wrong’, but it does mean that this is a summary of what we already knew, rather than some startling new revelation.

In fact, I looked into this very issue early last year, and here’s an edited version of what I had to say back then, which I stick by today:

One degree of separation

Take Thredbo for example, where the average daily minimum temperature in May up near Eagle’s Nest (1957m) is -1.3 degrees and the maximum is 5 degrees. A 1 degree rise in average temperature by 2030 will mean temperatures spend more time above the freezing level and any snow laid down in May is much more likely to melt.

What’s more, warmer temperatures will reduce the number of nights snow-making equipment can be used during May and June. Taking all this into account, I would guess the average start of the season would be pushed back a couple of weeks.

In September, when the season is wrapping up, warmer conditions will accelerate the rate of snow-melt and frustrate the snowmakers. I would put my money on the season finishing a week or two sooner than normal.

This is just back of the envelope stuff. But even back in 2003, a CSIRO study predicted an increase of 1 degree could lead to reductions of 30 to 40 days in season length. In addition, the study predicted the cold conditions required for snow-making will occur less often and the snowline will rise about two hundred metres, greatly reducing the amount of ski-able terrain.

Mountain biking in July

With the world’s current inability to do anything about greenhouse emissions, our best guess is that temperature rises across the Australian Alps will leave the snowpack somewhere between screwed and royally screwed sometime between 2030 and 2050.

I’m not confident humanity can ever get its act together to make the collective sacrifice necessary to do anything about this. And we really would need a collective sacrifice across the globe.

The Federal Government’s carbon tax on big polluters is a very small part of this approach, joining Europe (and little old New Zealand) as places with carbon reduction schemes in place. It’s not going to make a huge difference to total global emissions. But its real value would be if in some small way it could contribute to encouraging the United States and China to reach agreement on action. Once the North Americans and Chinese are on board, the rest of the world can be forced to follow suit if they want to continue selling their crap to the world’s biggest markets.

It’s probably fair to be cynical that this will ever happen given the current state of the world economy but the choice for Australia is between having a go at making a difference now, or doing nothing until someone else does.

For those of you that don’t believe the climate change predictions, or that humans are responsible for warming the planet, there’s probably nothing I can say to change your mind, or vice versa, so let’s agree to disagree.

But for those of you that are just confused about the whole climate change thing and want to learn more, rather than risk sparking an endless debate here, the best thing would be to hit me up at grasshoppermw@gmail.com, twitter, or facebook.

I’m a meteorologist, not a climate scientist, but I’ll do my best to answer any questions or point you online resources that might do the job.

That’s all from the Grasshopper.