HOW LONG UN­TIL WE MUST HANG UP THE SKIS?

De­clin­ing sea­sonal snow has more se­ri­ous con­se­quences than just de­priv­ing skiers of fun. Cli­mate change is caus­ing some ma­jor up­heavals on the slopes. JONICA NEWBY casts a skier’s- eye view on global warm­ing.

Cosmos - - Climate Watch -

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 clichéhand­some 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 (see How to make snow, page 103). 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. As the snow dis­ap­pears, so too does the year­round 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. “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. In 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.

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 mul­ti­in­sti­tute study pub­lished in Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions 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 fake­fur 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, vi­cepres­i­dent of sus­tain­ablity at Aspen Ski­ing Com­pany. “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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