Is It All Downhill From Here? Why Climate Change Could Mean the End of the Ski Industry

When members of the U.S. ski team glided off the lift at the world championships in France this February, their sleek blue and white race suits were not just for style; they were intended to make a point about the sport’s future. Designed using satellite imagery of melting polar ice caps, the suits—and the athletes—made a statement about climate change: “I’m just worried about a future where there’s no more snow. And without snow, there’s no more skiing,” said U.S. skier Travis Ganong. The race suits were created with support from the nonprofit organization Protect Our Winters (POW). The goal of this partnership is to start a conversation about the role the International Ski Federation (FIS) can play in fighting climate change. But the athletes’ stand raises questions about more than just the future of international competitions; what will the ski industry look like in a world with less snow? Will mountain resorts be able to adapt to a rapidly warming planet? 

Here in Boston, we’ve seen uncharacteristically warm temperatures and high levels of rainfall this winter, coupled with frigid, but snowless cold fronts. While places further north of Boston have seen slightly more snow, northeastern mountains are still falling short of their season averages. New England ski resorts are familiar with the occasional snowless winters and most are equipped with extensive systems to produce artificial snow. But according to Dennis Gauvin, a ski patrol director at Ski Bradford in Haverhill, Massachusetts, ski areas can only make snow if the temperature has sunk below 28 degrees by 9 p.m. Large fluctuations in temperature this winter have hindered snow-making, contributing to widespread closures of trails and even entire mountains for periods of time. Increased rainfall has also been problematic, creating slushy conditions out of the few inches of powder that have stuck. This combination of variable temperatures, high precipitation, and limited snow presents a great challenge for ski resorts to keep the lifts running. 

Yet these atypical conditions are only going to get worse as the globe continues warming. Higher temperatures trap more water vapor in the atmosphere, which, lacking cold enough air to freeze, falls to the earth as rain, rather than snow. A 2018 study covering ski areas across the United States found that the average ski season length was 34 days shorter in 2016 compared to 1982. In Europe, snow depth is declining by three to four centimeters every ten years, according to climate scientist Marie Cavitte of the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. Alpine resorts in Switzerland are facing the additional problem of melting glaciers, which lost 6% of their volume in just the past year. As these mountains struggle to keep their trails powder-covered, they are also threatened by heightened glacial risks of avalanches and floods. 

For an industry that generates up to $5.5 billion per year in Switzerland alone, the economic ramifications of changing winters are immense. Matthias In-Albon, chief executive of the Swiss ski resort Gstaad, describes the “micro-economy” in resort villages “that works, thanks to the winter tourism.” Lodging, restaurants, businesses, and of course, the mountains themselves rely on an influx of travelers during the winter months for the majority of their revenue. But in the absence of enough snow to keep the slopes open, ski towns are looking to expand their money-making opportunities. Many resorts have begun to stay open year-round, catering to a growing number of summer tourists that come to enjoy the lush greenery of the mountains. Although hiking may not be able to sustain quite the same extensive business model as the ski industry, resort owners are getting creative to enhance the summer experience. Some mountains are experimenting with keeping goats, which help protect vegetation, offer family-friendly entertainment, and provide an additional profit source through the sale of goat milk, cheese fondue, and other products. While these inventive ideas may be enough to keep the economies of mountain villages afloat, they do nothing to preserve skiing as a beloved pastime and competitive sport. 

In December 2022, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to delay choosing a location for the 2030 Winter Games, citing concerns that many regions might not have enough snow to properly host events. Following cancellations of certain World Cup ski events earlier this winter in the German Alps, the IOC is considering limiting the options for host locations down to a small pool that are forecasted to maintain cold enough temperatures and adequate snowfall throughout the coming years. In the running for the 2030 Winter Olympics are Salt Lake City, Vancouver, and Sapporo, Japan, all three of which have previously hosted the Winter Games. But the Committee plans to do more research before announcing a location in early 2024, in an attempt to prevent a snowless Winter Games in 2030. 

While artificial snow-making presents a potential solution for competitive and recreational skiing alike, the process is costly and has devastating environmental impacts. Researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland found that mountains lower than 2,000 meters above sea level could see a 79% increase in water consumption by 2100 in order to cover their runs with fake snow. Moreover, artificial snow machines consume massive amounts of energy and require the use of plows, which run on fossil fuels, to distribute the snow across the trails. In addition to the extra expense for ski resorts, the release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere from these technologies only exacerbates the problem of climate change. 

Despite the complex realities of warmer temperatures and far-from-ideal snow conditions, the ski industry is not ready to give up just yet. Ski resorts from the Alps to the Rockies have committed to sustainability plans that incorporate promises of net-zero emissions, renewable energy, and public transportation in mountain towns. And with growing attention from athletes dressed in climate-forward race suits and recreational skiers looking to enjoy a powdery day on the slopes, there may be hope to save the future of skiing.


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