Piste Off

Climate change threatens winter sports

Feature story - 13 January, 2005
Snow machines aren't going to cut it, and we all know that slush sucks. Research in Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Switzerland, France and Scotland all say the same thing: global warming will affect the winter tourism industry. So far, the nothern hemisphere ski season is suggesting that skiers and snowboarders need to start getting active if they want their sport to survive.

The glaciers in Peru have lost 22% of their area in the last 27 years.

According to the National Climactic Data Center in the US, the global combined average land and sea temperatures were the warmest on record for September - November 2004. That's bad news for winter sport. A UN report states the obvious: "Climate change is a severe threat to snow related sports such as skiing, snowboarding and cross-country skiing".

Before we all go and buy hang-gliders, can't we just use more snow machines? Possibly, but that solution doesn't take into account the fact that the availability of water for making snow may be more limited in future, not to mention that it's going to cost a lot more to make that much snow - you and I won't be able to afford to go skiing anyway. According to projected ski season losses, the amount of snowmaking required could increase by 36 - 144 percent in the 2020s and 48 - 187 percent in the 2050s in Canada alone. That's a lot more snow machines.

In the UK, there has been an unmistakable pattern of snow decline, to the point that Scottish ski centres have been diversifying into other businesses including golf, go-carting and paragliding. In fact, the European Environment Agency published a disturbing report in 2004 saying that Europe is warming up more quickly than the rest of the world and cold winters could disappear almost entirely by 2080.

Apart from the entrepreneurial Scots, a lot of the tourism industry seems to be in denial. The United Nations report from December 2003 says that tourism representatives are still playing down the consequences of climate change. On the other hand, they seem to be more than happy to cite global warming when they need arguments for buying new snow machines, extending existing ski runs and opening new higher altitude ski resorts!

It's not just less snow, fewer glaciers and warmer temperatures that are the problems - climate change brings with it unpredictable weather events and melting snow which can cause landslides. In 1999 the 'avalanche winter' in Switzerland damaged 20 ski lifts, 11 chair-lifts, 4 cable railways and 1 funicular, costing up to US$130 million. Researchers in Zurich also say that huge swathes of ice needed to support plant and animal life in the mountains have already disappeared, causing other dangers such as rock slides (which obviously aren't exactly a tourist attraction).

Let's take a mountain by mountain look at what is actually happening.


According to the Australian Government science organisation CSIRO, by

2020, the average annual duration of snow-cover decreases by between

five and 40 days and the total area covered in snow shrinks by 10-40

percent. By 2050, season durations are reduced by between 15 and 100

days and the total area covered in snow shrinks by 20 to 85 percent.


The average ski season in Canada is projected to reduce by 0-16 percent in the 2020s, 7-32 percent in the 2050s and 11-50 percent in the 2080s. Without artificial snowmaking - which will be more expensive due to the increasing lack of real snow - the season could decline by 37 - 57 percent in the 2050s.


Today, 85 percent of Switzerland's 230 ski resorts are "snow-reliable". This is likely to drop to 63 percent between 2030 and 2050, and it could possibly drop to 44 percent. The potential annual cost of climate change in Switzerland is of such magnitude that it can't be ignored.

Italy, Germany and Austria

The impacts of climate change on winter tourism will probably be even worse in countries like Germany and Austria, due to the low altitudes of their ski resorts. In Italy also, half of the winter sport villages are below 1,300 metres, and some of these are already facing problems with less snow. If the altitude for snow reliability rises just 200 metres, many of these resorts will not exist.

United States

Snow levels in the US are likely to rise at the rate of "300 feet for every degree of [global] warming" (a bit less than 100 metres) say scientists from the University of Washington. The lowest ski resort in the US state of Washington is Snoqualmie (you will have seen it if you watched David Lynch's 'Twin Peaks' on tv) at 975 metres above sea level. Researchers say that a Snoqualmie skiing season that is now four months long will probably shrink to less than 3 months within 20 years, and down to 2 months in 40 years. Last year the season was delayed due to lack of snow.

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