The winter sports industry can’t afford to ignore the effects of climate change. Within the last three decades, mountain precipitation patterns have become more erratic, and ski seasons have become shorter. In 2004, lack of snow forced the closure of four resorts in Scotland. In spring 2012, a sudden warm spell melted all the snow in Ottawa, Canada, causing resorts to shut down before the season was over. In Bolivia, the world’s highest ski lift, which stood at 5,395 metres at Chacaltaya, closed due to glacial melting in 2011. And in the European Alps, lack of snow cover and unpredictable storm patterns have destabilized the winter sports economy.
Experts seem to agree the trend is likely to continue. One 2006 UNEP report warned that low-altitude ski resorts in Europe, North America and Australia are under threat from global warming, and projected that, in a worst-case scenario, none of Australia’s ski resorts would be economically viable by 2070 if ice-melt trends continue. And in 2006, European alpine areas below 1,600 metres were already receiving 20 per cent less snow – bad news for the European ski industry, as many resorts in Austria, Germany and Italy are built below 1,300 metres. Melting permafrost will also increase the risk of dangerous landslides and make it necessary to brace structures such as lifts.
Loss of ski-season days represents a huge economic blow. Switzerland’s tourism industry is the most important source of income in alpine areas. If climate change forces the closure of resorts built below 1,500 metres, the country would lose 37 per cent of its 230 resorts. One analysis commissioned by the US State of New Hampshire’s government estimated that a loss of 10 to 20 per cent ski days in the New Hampshire ski industry would represent a loss of $42 to $84 million. Some ski resorts are coping with economic uncertainty by offering off-season sports, like golf and paragliding. They’re also taking ski runs up to higher altitudes – often conflicting with wildlife protection regulations – or extending seasons by using artificial snow machines.