Ski Resorts Suffer Due to Climate Change
From December to February, winter wonderlands from Aspen to Courchevel experience huge surges in traffic. Internationally, the ski industry generates over $189 billion of revenue; in 2022, the ski and snowboard industry in the United States generated around $4.3 billion. To say that it is the go-to for a winter vacation is an understatement. However, even after the industry has healed from some of the damage that the COVID-19 pandemic caused, it is still threatened by a different problem: climate change.
Ski resorts in Europe, Asia, and North America are experiencing shorter ski seasons and unusually green slopes — even at the brink of winter — due to global warming. According to a 2017 study, it is estimated that by 2100, snow cover may decline by 70 percent in the Swiss Alps. Other European resorts that lie at low altitudes have already closed for this season because of the abnormal lack of snow. In fact, nearly half of France’s 7,500 ski resorts are done for the season.
Resorts are beginning to rely on artificial snow to keep the slopes running. Some places in Europe are using snow cannons in order to turn water droplets into flakes of snow by cooling them into artificial clouds at freezing temperatures. Massive fans are used to blow this snow onto the slopes and create a plush blanket for skiing or snowboarding. When the 2022 Winter Olympics happened in Beijing, China last year, it was the first to operate with nearly 100 percent artificial snow.
Although it sounds promising, the process of generating enough snow for resorts to stay up the whole season is extremely harsh on the environment. Since a single machine can only cover a small area, many of these high-powered machines are needed to create a thick blanket of snow for the entire resort, so the slopes still remain green, patchy, and dull. According to SMI Snow Makers, 285,000 liters of water is needed to cover a 61 by 61 meter patch with snow. Popular snow-makers use a ton of energy through their water pump systems. Moreover, machines run by diesel engines can further contribute to air pollution and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
These operating ski resorts are left in a bind — many are at risk of closure if they do not stock up on the newest snow-making technology, which will still exacerbate the problem.
“Already, without ski cannons, we wouldn’t be able to operate. I am about to retire. It’s my younger staff that I worry about,” Éric Novak, the director of the Alpe du Grand Serre resort, told the Washington Post.
Snow cannons reinforce a positive feedback loop, with the generation of more artificial snow leading to water loss from the surrounding areas. Large reservoirs of water, streams, and lakes supply the machines; combined with evaporation, more droughts are possible in the future. A study by the Italian World Wildlife Fund states that 95 million cubic meters of water are used by certain snow cannons. As numerous European, North American, and Asian resorts take advantage of snow machines, the high energy use will deepen the cycle and may lead to a future where winter sports are rare and inaccessible for the general population. A study by Hydrology and Earth System Sciences estimates that the number of snow days in the Alps could decrease by half at lower altitudes by 2100.
In order to stay active, some ski resorts have been trying to relocate to higher elevations, where the length and snow coverage of the season stay relatively the same. There may be hope for larger companies that have the money and space to make the move. Smaller resorts, on the other hand, may not have the same luxury.
“At altitudes below 2,000 meters, there is no future for skiing,” Jean-Marie Martin, the resort manager of the Valloire resort in France, explained to France 24.
While some seasons may be drier than others, this year’s is unparalleled. The future of skiing is bleak, and it may end up being a more exclusive sport than it already is. It is crucial for resorts to begin implementing more sustainable measures to reduce their own impact, such as using recyclable equipment, building solar panels, and recycling heat used to power ski lifts. By reducing their own carbon footprint, these resorts may be salvageable.