Mountains

13% of ski resorts could lose all natural snow cover by 2100: study

What’s happening? Snow cover in the Australian Alps could decrease by 78% by the end of the century, according to research from Germany’s University of Bayreuth. This is much faster than the rate of decline in the six other major skiing regions assessed. The researchers found that 13% of global ski areas could lose all their natural snow cover under a future high emissions scenario. The loss of snow poses an economic threat to ski resorts. However, the researchers argue the adoption of mitigation strategies such as contouring, landscaping, and new resort construction could also pose a risk to mountain biodiversity. (The Guardian) 

Why does this matter? The skiing industry contributes billions to the global economy. In the European Alps, the world’s most popular ski destination, the sector is worth $30bn. In the US, this figure stands at $58bn, while in Australia the industry contributes $2.4bn to the economy. The impacts of global warming on skiing are already being felt. A study published in March of this year found that the US ski industry had lost over $5bn over the past two decades due to rising temperatures. The decline in snow cover forecast in the new report therefore poses a significant financial risk to the sector. 

Worldwide decline – The study analysed seven key mountain skiing regions – the European Alps, Andes, Appalachian Mountains, Australian Alps, Japanese Alps, Southern Alps, and Rocky Mountains. Each location was assessed in relation to “low” “high” and “very high” emissions scenarios. The researchers found that annual snow cover days would “significantly decrease worldwide” in all of these regions under each of the scenarios. A high emissions scenario would see ski regions in the southern hemisphere “most severely affected”. Alongside Australia’s 78% rate of decline, the European Alps would see a decline of 42%, the Japanese Alps 50% and the Southern Alps of New Zealand 51%.  

The study builds on previous research which has also warned of the dangers posed to the ski sector by rising temperatures. A 2023 study found that 53% of the 28 European resorts assessed would face a very high risk of low snow at 2C of global warming above pre-industrial levels.   

Problematic solutions – Some resorts, particularly those at lower altitudes, could be helped by the use of artificial snow, which is created by shooting water droplets and compressed air out of snow guns. However, critics have raised concerns about the environmental impacts of artificial snow. The aforementioned 2023 study found that the use of snowmaking to attain 50% of piste snow coverage would cut the number of European resorts at high risk of loss of snow cover to 27% at 2C. However, the study also found that, although emissions from snowmaking would comprise just 2% of total resort emissions, the large scale use of artificial snow would be problematic in terms of energy and water use.  

Another study produced by the University of Basel in 2022, which was based on the Swiss resort of Andermatt-Sedrun-Disentis, found that the use of artificial snow for up to 100 consecutive days would increase water consumption to around 540 million litres towards the end of the century, up from the 300 million needed today. Water consumption could also increase ninefold by 2100 in the French Alps due to dependence on artificial snow. 

Some environmentalists also argue that the creation of artificial snow, which melts more slowly than natural snow, can alter water cycles and water table levels. Concerns have also been raised about the chemical content of artificial snow, the impact of noise disturbance on wildlife and the effect of artificial snowpacks on vegetation and soil composition. The expansion of resorts into less populated areas at higher elevations could also place additional pressure on mountainous areas that are already experiencing significant impacts from global warming.  

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