Snowfall was at a record low in November 2016 across the lower 48 United States. Ben Brown investigates the effect of climate change on ski resorts around the world
Picture desolate chairlifts swinging in the breeze. Imagine grassy pistes, once covered in thick powder, now empty. This is a stark reality for many of the ski resorts forced to close their gates over the last five years.
According to the overwhelming majority of scientists, the cause is global warming. But can advanced technology such as “injecting clouds” and robotic snow guns save the world’s ski resorts?
Glaciers aren’t supposed to move that fast
Jeremy Jones knows the impact of climate change on the mountains better than anyone. As one of the world’s best back country snowboarders, he’s witnessed the changing landscape first hand.
Riding one his favourite glaciers in Chamonix, France recently, he was shocked by the speed of its retreat. Naturally, he’s worried about the effect of climate change on the future generation: “Are my kids gonna have the same opportunity, are my kids’ kids?”
Jones has since set up Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit lobby group to fight the clean energy cause. It’s not just a group of gnarly snowboarders either. The organisation is backed by scientists and politicians.
In the US alone, winter sports and tourism generates $67 billion every year and supports almost a million jobs. It’s no stretch to say that global warming – if left unobstructed – could leave a significant hole in the tourism industry.
Already, the slopes are beginning to empty. Since 2011, visitor numbers to US resorts has dropped from 60.5 million to 52.8 million. One of the largest resorts on the planet, Squaw Valley, saw a 25 per cent drop in business over the 2014-15 season.
Thanks to delayed openings, poor snow coverage and outright closures, skiers just aren’t bothering with the slopes.
Ski resorts adopt new technology
To keep the pistes open, resorts are turning to more and more advanced technology solutions. The pistes at Heavenly Valley, California, for example, are 73 per cent covered by snow guns. 200 machines ensure the mountain is white throughout the season.
There’s only one downside; these machines require a low temperature to create snow. While the snow guns are growing smarter, with many now using sensors to detect the best locations for snow creation, if temperatures continue to rise, the machines will simply become redundant. Some resorts have even fallen back on pumping snow from car parks.
A second technique is the rather fantastical method of “cloud seeding”. Some top resorts, like Vail, now inject the clouds with silver iodide in an attempt to trigger additional snowfall. They claim it improves precipitation by 5-15 per cent.
In other cases, resorts are building grass or plastic carpets to supplement the main slopes. But there isn’t a skier in the world that will tell you plastic pistes are a good alternative to sweet, fresh powder.
The largest resorts are best-placed to deal with the low snowfall. Not only can they afford the specialised technology necessary to cover the slopes, they can also buy up land further north.
In one of the biggest ever ski resort-acquisitions, Vail bought Canada’s Whistler Blackcomb resort in August this year. By the 2017-18 season, skiers and boarders will be able to hit the slopes at both resorts with just one season pass.
Meanwhile, other resorts are teaming up to offer joint access to their mountains. The Epic Pass, for example, lets skiers loose on 12 different resorts, as well as providing five free days at resorts in Switzerland, Austria and France.
These snow “alliances” are keeping people on the slopes, and giving skiers another option if one resort is struggling with low snowfall.
“The resorts operating at the margin will disappear”
One researcher, Matthias Ruth, suggests the sheer cost involved in reacting to climate change will cripple smaller resorts. Those unable to invest in snow guns and cloud seeding technology will be the first to disappear.
Resorts at a lower latitude are particularly vulnerable as they will see the biggest and fastest reduction in snowpack. Elizabeth Burakowski, assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire’s Earth Systems Research Center, explains: “The higher elevation resorts will be more resilient [as] snow lines will be moving up the mountain.”
Bottom line, governments have to come together and tame the runaway pace of global warming or ski resorts may become increasingly isolated, expensive or just empty.
As Jeremy Jones puts it, “We all need winter.”