Bad news for skiers: The uncertain future of seasonal snow

Last January I was in Japan – my first
time – having a “ski-bunny” adventure
in Hokkaido. The nation’s most northern
and coldest island has some of the best
and most consistent seasonal snow in the
world, so I wasn’t surprised to meet a lot
of fellow Aussies on the slopes. What did
surprise me, though, was the number of
skiers from northern Europe – Finns,
Germans, Swedes and Austrians. I spent a
delightful day skiing with a pair of cliché-
handsome Swiss ski instructors. “What
on earth is a Swiss ski instructor doing on
a ski holiday in Japan in the middle of the
European ski season!?” I asked lightly, but
it was no laughing matter. “We came to
find snow,” was the reply.

It had been a Green Christmas in the
Swiss Alps. The month before had seen the
least snowfall for any December on record
since 1864. Switzerland’s mountains now
experience 40 fewer days of snow a year,
on average, than in the 1970s. “The snows
are melting earlier and arriving later,”
says climatologist Martine Rebetez. The
researcher, who works at the Swiss Federal
Research Institute for Forest, Snow and
Landscape research, is also a keen skier.
“I’m particularly sad for my children and
grandchildren,” she says.

Around the world seasonal snow is
retreating. From the alps of Europe to the
Rocky Mountains of North America, from
China to Australia, spring melt is arriving
earlier and earlier – and traditional ski
resorts are feeling the heat. The mountains
of Hokkaido may be one the few places
where the ski industry can chill, with the
Japan Meteorological Agency predicting
more frequent heavy snowfalls for the area
even though less snow will fall across Japan
as whole.

So the question for snow enthusiasts is:
how long until we have to hang up our skis
– or snowboards – for good?

In the short term, at least, ski resorts
can maintain their slopes by making their
own snow. In the longer term, if temperatures
keep rising, even snow machines won’t be
able to keep many ski resorts in business.

Declining seasonal snow has more
serious consequences than just depriving
skiers of fun. Alpine winter snowfall
plays a crucial role in supplying water to
streams, rivers and reservoirs – on which
millions depend for their water supply.

Take, for example, the Colorado River
in the United States, which begins high
in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and
supplies water to seven states – Colorado,
Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico,
Nevada and California (including the
city of Los Angeles). Seasonal snow is the
major reservoir for the Colorado river.

the snow disappears, so too does the year-round
water supply.

“When I give a talk, I ask people a trick
question,” says Brad Udall, a hydrologist
with the Colorado Water Institute. “What
is the biggest reservoir in our water
supply? People suggest Lake Mead or
Lake Powell. Not even close. Our biggest
reservoir by far is our snowpack.”

The snowpack, by locking up water
over winter and releasing it slowly over
spring and into summer, evens out the
flow that feeds streams and rivers during
the dry seasons. If the same amount
of water fell as rain in winter, it would
quickly cause reservoirs to overflow, with
the excess flowing straight to the sea. {%recommended 1336%}

“I’m very worried,” says Udall, who cites
research that the Colorado River’s water
flow declined 20% between 2000 and
2014: “We’ve shown a third of the drop is
directly due to higher temperatures and
climate change.
Is it a harbinger of things to come?
That’s a complex question.

Other major
snow-melt-fed river systems include those
in the Himalayas and the Andes – both
with enormous populations dependent on
their water. Seasonal snow has been less
measured in those regions, and no clear
trend has yet been discerned.

In some
of the higher, colder parts of the world
snowfall may increase in the near term
even as temperatures rise. But what is clear
is that global warming will continue the
trend of later snow onset and earlier melt.
“This is likely to hurt water supplies,”
Udall says. “Hydrologists are particularly
afraid for the people of the Andes, as the
glaciers disappear and snow is eventually
replaced by rain.”

Yet even as rivers and ski days dwindle,
blizzards seem to be getting worse.

2015, the US experienced one of its
biggest snowstorms of all time, stretching
from Texas to New England. But this too
can be explained by rising temperatures.

One leading theory is that it is to do with
the polar jetstream – the tight ribbon of air
that whips around the poles. As the Arctic
and Antarctic heat up more than the rest
of the planet, the jetstream is becoming
looser and loopier. The result is polar air seeping out to blast our continents.

So we
can expect more crazy snow storms, even
as seasonal snow declines.
That leaves the million-dollar question
for skiers – can skiing be saved? If not,
how long do we have left?

Australia is the canary in the coal mine
when it comes to seasonal snow. Its highest
mountain is just 2,228 metres, with most
ski resorts sitting below 1,900 metres.
Records kept by the Snowy Hydro scheme
show that at Spencer’s Creek, one of the
highest points of the Australian snowfields,
total seasonal snow has declined by a third
since 1954.

Despite this, Australia’s ski
resorts have thrived due to advances in
snowmaking technology. Snowmaking,
however, is temperature dependent. How
long can the resorts continue making snow?

This question prompted the Victorian
Alpine Resorts Co-ordinating Council
to commission Australia’s Antarctic
Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative
Research Centre to undertake modelling
of the future of natural and human-made
snow in Victorian ski resorts.

Based on
the high emissions scenario calculated
by the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change’s 5th assessment report,
the researchers found average alpine
temperatures would rise by four to five
degrees by 2070, and the length of the
ski season contract by 65-90%. Only the
highest peaks would be left with snow. {%recommended 4952%}

Nearer-term impacts are harder to
calculate, though the scientists could
model conditions relevant to snowmaking.
These calculations suggest that by the
2030s snowmaking opportunities will be
half that of 2010.

“We’re seeing the impacts of climate
change much earlier than I expected when
I first started researching climate 20 years
ago,” says Rebecca Harris, the alpine
report’s lead author.

In the US, snow is expected to decline
a further 30-60% in the next 30 years,
varying according to region. On the east
coast of the US, say goodbye to downhill
skiing by the middle and certainly the end
of the century if we continue to track at
current emissions.

Across the western US, a new multi-institute
study published in Nature
in April shows a 10-20%
loss of total snowpack since the 1980s. In
Colorado’s most famous ski resort town,
Aspen – a name synonymous with fake-fur
clad celebrities and “sick as” powder
riding – the equivalent of one month of
good skiing conditions has been lost since
1980, according to Auden Schendler, vice-president
of at Aspen Skiing

“Last year every single month
of winter had a rain event. It’s becoming
the new normal”. Aspen could even lose up
to 75 more ski days by 2050. That doesn’t
leave a lot of winter.
With tens of thousands of jobs relying
on winter tourism, the estimated revenue
lost between 2000 and 2010 was about
US$1 billion, according to an industry
report, “Climate Impacts on the Winter
Tourism Economy in the United States”.

So, can we save winter? The latest
study by Switzerland’s Institute for
Snow and Avalanche Research is bluntly
titled: “How much can we save? Impact
of different emissions scenarios on future
snow cover in the Alps.”

For co-author
Mathias Bavay, the most striking finding is
that even at altitudes above 2,000 metres,
70% of the snow could be gone by the end
of the century. Achieving the emissions
targets set in the 2016 Paris Agreement
would limit the loss to 30%.

“It’s the
difference between saving skiing or not,”
he says.
The world’s snow lovers have banded
together in a 100,000 member-strong
organisation called “Protect our Winters”,
aimed at using industry clout to pressure
governments to act.

So what about me? Am I ready to
hang up my skis?

Not on your life. I will
be getting every last bit of joy I can out
of riding this magical mystical substance
while I still can – and joining “Protect
Our Winters” to take up the fight. Japan is
also one of the places skiable snow will last
longest. So I guess I’ll see my handsome
Swiss ski instructor there next year.

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