Winter sports – especially downhill skiing, cross-country skiing and snowboarding – are increasingly popular all over the world. The most famous ski spots are the European Alps and the North American Rockies, but there are resorts in the Andes, the Japan Alps, Kashmir, New Zealand’s southern Alps, Australia’s Snowy Mountains – and even in places like Iran, Algeria, Lebanon, Republic of Korea, Georgia, South Africa and Morocco. Anywhere in the world, winter sports are an exhilarating and healthy way to experience Earth’s spectacular mountain environments.
But as more people take to the slopes, it’s important to remember how fragile these high-altitude ecosystems are. Their steep slopes, severe climate conditions and thin topsoil make them susceptible to erosion and landslides. And mountain environments often pack a wide range of ecosystems into relatively small, often isolated bands. These provide habitats for high numbers of specialized and endemic species that can easily be disrupted by human activity or climate change, which at high altitudes is more pronounced than over the rest of the planet except the poles. Research on alpine vegetation on European summits has shown that cold-temperature plants – like the European alpine species Nevadensia purpurea – are being pushed out by warmer-temperature plants. Because there’s nowhere to migrate but up, species will ultimately run out of space, and could vanish completely.
Meanwhile, roads, ski lifts, buildings and waste disposal disrupt and fragment habitat, and the presence of humans is stressful for wildlife. Scientists studying the black grouse, a keystone species in the European Alps, found that human contact greatly increased the birds’ stress hormones, while in Australia, the mountain pygmy-possum is endangered due to habitat fragmentation caused by resort development.
Of course, this isn’t to say that people should stop enjoying winter sports – but it helps to make choices that take environmental impact into consideration. Here are a few tips:
- Try cross-country skiing and snowshoeing: they don’t require changing landscapes for ski runs, or energy-intensive lifts or artificial snow.
- Don’t fly. Drive or take a train to your mountain resort to save on greenhouse gas emissions.
- Support a resort making efforts to be green, whether it’s rail-accessible, runs its vehicles on biodiesel, or plants vegetation to reduce erosion.