On thin ice: How time is running out to save winter sports from the melting snow
One alarming consequence is that the winter sports industry is now more reliant on manufactured snow than ever, which in itself requires vast inputs of money and energy
Britain’s most permanent patch of ice is called Sphinx, or at least it was. It completely melted away in only six of the past 300 summers, but this year is the second summer in succession it has been lost, and experts predict it might never see another July.
For most of us it is all to easy to ignore the statistics, to shrug a little when we hear numbers describing intangible metrics, like a one degree rise or a few thousand metric tonnes of carbon. But nothing is quite as arresting as the physical manifestation of our impact on the planet – the ice sheets melting, the green earth scorched, water creeping ever higher up our sea walls.
As our snow levels depress, it is not just the double-barrelled Surrey family holiday at threat; communities reliant on winter tourism and snow sports industries from North America to Europe and across the extremities of the globe are vulnerable to a diminishing resource. It might be melted sludge one year, thick snow the next, but the general trend is undeniable and the extremes are greater than ever.
"I have been snowboarding since I was five," Katie Ormerod, one of Britain’s most talented snowboarders, tells The Independent. “There are certain resorts I have been going to since I was really young, and I can see a difference in the snow every year. It seems more and more now when I go to resorts now there is no snow or very little. I have been going to Stubai for years in October and November, and when I went there this year was no snow at all.”
The anecdotal evidence of unreliable snowfall is increasingly popping up all over the globe, and there will be much more. Up to half the Alps’ ski resorts could be forced to close within the next 50 years (the UN); the Scottish skiing industry could collapse entirely in that time (Met Office); in the US the duration of the average ski season is predicted to halve by the end of the century (National Snow and Ice Data Center).
One alarming consequence is that the winter sports industry is now more reliant on manufactured snow than ever, which in itself requires vast inputs of money and energy: perversely, these efforts to replace reliable snowfall are heating the globe further still.
One warm winter can have widespread and lasting consequences. “Like Arapahoe Basin in Colorado,” says Sam Killgore of the organisation Protect Our Winters. “In 2011-12 season skiers didn’t show up, and the trickle-down effect for the mountain community was huge. Resorts in north-east US have closed down altogether due to lack of snowfall. Confidence in resorts goes down, it decreases the season-pass sales, and it starts to cycle. A low snow year can wipe £1bn from the global winter sports economy.”
Those most affected are not going down without a fight. Protect Our Winters is determined and well organised, and has moved from simply raising awareness to demanding serious political and structural change. “We’re focusing on big systemic policy shifts,” says Killgore, whose team have built up a collection of influential ambassadors to fight for the cause. “We’ve found that athletes with medals around their necks open doors and get meetings with important people.”
The case of Tahoe’s Squaw Valley shows us what success can look like. The winter resort persuaded its local utility company to buy in to a whole new green energy profile to power the area, described by the Valley’s president as an ethical decision that underpinned the resort’s very existence. Yet we are so deep into a climate emergency that the winter community urgently needs other resorts, industries and authorities to make similar radical change.
Sport itself must play a role in the fight against climate change, but it also needs protecting from the consequences. From Squaw to Sphinx, time is running out to save the snow.
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