BLOG The Snow Greenie – Climate change and the snow sports community

August 17th, 2010


The Snow Greenie – Cam Walker

Melting snow is a symptom of climate change. Image:; Elle Cook

Blog | Cam Walker

This has been the winter of on again, off again snow. Thankfully we are back in a good cycle at present and it is easy – and probably necessary – just to get out into it and be in the (possibly fleeting) moment and enjoy it.

But in such a warm and dry land with such low lying mountains, all skiers and boarders must be aware of how close to the wire things are here. Like the broader cycle of Australian weather, our winters are often wildly erratic, making for good and bad seasons. Unlike many continents where there is a commercial skiing industry, we don’t have the advantage of really high resorts, meaning a poor winter can impact on the entire industry rather than just the lower or smaller resorts.

Obviously this is not good for the people making their living from the snow industry. The ten mainland resorts generate close to $1 billion a year and employ thousands of people. And, of course, its not great for people that want to spend their winters skiing or boarding.

Nowdays of course we must factor climate change into the mix. Without serious action to greatly reduce emissions, it is predicted that our Alpine regions will experience an 18-66% reduction in snow cover by 2030, and a 39-96% reduction by 2070. And despite some well known sceptics in the resorts and more broadly the snow industry, skiers and boarders themselves know whats going on. According to interviews done in resorts, close to 80% of people visiting accept that climate change will negatively impact on future snow conditions.

And as we know, resorts have responded to the threat of more mediocre winters by ‘re badging’ themselves as year round destinations (to keep tourist dollars coming in all year rather than just in ever shorter snow seasons) and through investing in snow making. This is a very substantial financial investment. For instance, in the 2008 season, collectively the resorts put in more than $16 million in snow making infrastructure (and we know who really ends up paying for this).

So far so good, to a degree. The winters get shorter and more erratic, the resorts spend more time and money on snowmaking and while we pay more for the privilege, we can keep on going. But as a solution to our problems, lots of issues come up as you consider the detail of this response. For instance, at present only around 12% of existing resort terrain is covered by snowmaking. I have mostly skied at Hotham this winter, and with only a handful of lifts open for the first half of winter, the options started to get a bit thin after a day or so. How would resorts ever afford to cover the other 82% of their terrain?

And as we know, snowmaking still relies on the temperature being cool enough at night and uses a lot of water and energy. And all climate change scenarios at this point show decreased precipitation in coming years. Sure, resorts are making their water systems more effective and some, like Hotham, have impressive recycling systems that creates water that is safe for use in snowmaking. But have you ever wondered where your water comes from when you turn on the tap at a resort? It still (largely) comes from streams that feed into catchments and unless there is flow in the rivers, there won’t be much in the reservoirs.

Then there is the question of energy. Snowmaking uses a lot of it. So, if we double or triple our snowmaking area that does the same to our energy bills (and hence cost of our lift ticket). And it is likely that snowmaking will have to become more intensive and in some winters actually create the snow base rather than being used as ‘top up’ for natural cover, again cranking up the energy bills. And this is all before we have a price on carbon. I really can’t see how how such extravagant uses of energy as snow making could be some how eligible for cost subsidies or off setting under a carbon price regime… Again, this cost flows on to our tickets.

One more factor must be considered. If that figure of less snow given at the start of this post is correct, and it is based on the work of the very best researchers in this realm, it could mean a 60% reduction in the duration of the average season by 2020. With such a short season, of a month or so, how can resorts be expecting to make sufficient returns on all this new massive investment that they will need to keep the doors open?

So, do we just say ‘bugger it’ and go hard now while we can, and then ski or board overseas if we can afford it later on? Or do we say that we want to ski/ board/ snowshoe/ toboggan/ generally have an awesome time in the snow for the rest of our lives (and leave the same option for our kids) and actually do something about it?

Climate change is a massive global issue. It can feel like its a giant juggernaut and that there is nothing we can do to turn that juggernaut around. But the climate change we are already experiencing – and the much worse warming we will experience later – has been caused by the actions of many people over many years. In the same way, our choices and actions can turn it around. But only if we accept the gravity of the situation. There are truckloads of books and tonnes of info out there if you don’t already know the story. The book Climate Code Red by David Spratt and Philip Sutton is a damn good start if you want to get your head around the issue and what’s coming if we don’t act now.

Action is always the antidote to despair. And informed action is even better. Its not just about changing some lights and offsetting a flight. Its about profound changes. And it has to be about politics (sure that’s not a very exciting option given the less than inspiring federal election campaign we are living through right now). But remember that people are taking that political action, in their millions. And whether that means joining your local climate action group, or Protect our Winters, or hassling a politician, its all good. Its only inaction thats un cool.

Stay tuned for my next post, which will focus on ideas about what we can do to turn this around.

There are extra resources and info on climate change and the Alps in The Mountain Journal.

The stats used in this article come from the research paper ‘Skiing Less Often in a Warmer World: Attitudes of Tourists to Climate Change in an Australian Ski Resort’, by Catherine Marina Pickering, J Guy Castley and Michelle Burtt.

To download a copy of Climate Code Red, check here