• Arlen Dancziger

The Future of Snow Sports in a Warming Climate

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

Ski resorts are facing a few critical issues in the coming decades. Their biggest customers, Baby Boomers, are aging and hanging up their skis for good. The millennials are riding less and spending less per trip. This has made some resorts raise the prices on an already expensive hobby.


But the issue that riders and resorts face together, may be the biggest hurdle to overcome: will skiing and riding be possible in an almost certainly warmer climate in the future?


To get at the heart of this issue, there are a few things to consider. Does global warming mean less snow necessarily? Shorter seasons? Wetter snow? Snow alternatives?



I put on my big-boy-science-research pants and tried to get answers. Here’s what I found out: there’s good news and bad news. But mostly bad news. (I focused my research on British Columbia's [BC] mountain ranges, but looked into Canada as a whole, and some American areas as well.)


Temperatures are Increasing Across the Board


Well, I’m sure you knew that already. Global warming means the globe as a whole is warming. And Canada is no exception. In fact, Canada is warming at double the speed of the rest of the world.


This is bad news for ski enthusiasts. Since 1948, Canada has already warmed by 1.7℃ and the northwest territories have warmed by 2.3℃. As a worst case scenario, if the world as a whole doesn’t take steps to slow emissions down, Canada’s temperatures are projected to rise 6℃ by 2050.


In addition, winter temperatures are expected to increase more than summer temperatures. BC, Canada’s unofficial skiing capital, has already seen a 3.7℃ increase in winter temperatures. There have already been more extreme hot days and less extreme cold days, and that’s not expected to stop either. As these trends continue, it is expected that autumn and spring snow will transition to rain in coming years.



The one bright spot? This could mean a longer growing season for farmers and warmer weather for anti-winter folks. Yay.


Less Snow Cover Across the Board


This facet of the issue is not as bleak as the previous one. Still bleak, but not as bleak. Firstly, climate predictions pointed to there being less snow cover in spring, summer, autumn, and winter individually. But due to some good work by people aiming to save my sanity, snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has been shown to decrease in summer and spring, but not in autumn or winter. There has even been a slight increase in autumn and winter. This is a direct refutation to current climate models.


skepticalscience.com




Climate models suggest that global warming will trigger an increase in precipitation across most of Canada. BC has seen the lowest increase in precipitation across Canada. And an increase in precipitation doesn’t necessarily mean snow.


Snow cover has lost 5-10% of area per decade in Canada. But BC has been the exception to this, with a slight increase in snow cover and snow water equivalent (the amount of water if the snow melted). Again, the news isn’t all good. BC is getting more snow cover overall, but less of it is falling in winter [the Alberta Rockies are facing similar issues]. Most of the increase in snow cover is due to spring snow. In addition, even though the climate models were wrong about snow decreasing in each season individually so far, this is expected to change.


The good news: winter temperatures and precipitation in BC are expected to stay relatively consistent over the next few decades.


Glacial Melting


Okay. Temperatures are rising and there’s less snow cover. But surely we can still ski glaciers?


Well, as we’ve seen already, Canada is warming at an alarming rate, and the glaciers don’t like that. In fact, there is unprecedented speed of mass loss in Canada’s glaciers over the past five decades. Projections estimate that glacial volume will decrease by 74%-96% by the end of the century. This isn’t just bad news for glacier skiing enthusiasts.



This rate and volume of glacial loss represents the 3rd largest cryosphere contributor to sea level rise in the entire world. The cryosphere (all ice and snow on earth) is a significant player in cooling the planet, reflecting huge amounts of sunlight back into space. The loss of the Northern Cordillera’s glaciers would be detrimental to water sources in Canada and global warming as a whole.


Shorter Seasons


I’ve already touched on higher temperatures and autumn and spring snow transitioning to more rain events in the future. But what this really means is a shorter ski season. This can be seen in not only BC but in Canada as a whole and into parts of the USA.


This has hit close to home in the area I grew up in. Blue Mountain, Hockley Valley; these sad excuses for mountains have been fighting to open their resorts in time for Christmas Break, a big part of their hunt for profit. Ski resorts on the Pacific Coast have been facing similar challenges.


When ski resorts can’t get open in time, or close earlier than expected, we all lose.


The Consequences


I’m digging hard for the silver lining here. I’m not sure if there is one. So let’s look at what’s likely to happen and see if there’s something to sink our teeth into.


Shortened seasons are going to be hard to overcome. Resorts will have to be creative. By creative, I mean that they’ll start by raising lift ticket prices. This has already begun, with some resorts charging over $200 USD for a day pass. Frankly, you can hardly blame (some of) them. This may not be a long term solution at all though, as that increase will price out potential new customers and make it harder for the Average Joe to get out on the mountain. And with the already declining Baby Boomer population, who’s gonna fill all those chairlifts?



Another creative solution is increasing snowmaking capacity. If the snow isn’t falling, why not make your own? Resorts have been doing this for decades. But there are a couple issues with this solution. Firstly, snowmaking can be costly, and that’s only going to drive ticket prices even higher. Secondly snowmaking only works in a specific variety of weather conditions. So if temperatures increase, or there is too much moisture in the air, this becomes impossible, until a new snow technology is invented.


Maybe, the solution is to move our resorts upward. Glacial resorts are a hit across the world; they have a consistent snow base and aren’t as prone to rain events as lower resorts. This seems to work until the glaciers, as we’ve explored earlier, melt, just like everything else. One glacial resort has already closed down permanently after an 18,000 year old glacier disappeared. The others are likely to follow suit.


One idea may be to expand northward. New, untouched areas may have hidden gems among their rocky outcrops and steep chutes. These resorts seem more likely to last the next 100 years as opposed to the resorts in the American Pacific Northwest. One issue with this idea is that most of these places are too remote to attract a stable consumer base; would you travel yearly to Alaska for a family vacation? Only the most dedicated riders would. The second issue is that the Canadian North is warming at quadruple the rate of the rest of the world. So although these may be a good idea for now, that’s all that they are: an idea for now.


One solution for the skiers and riders themselves is to take up splitboarding or ski touring. This is the act of climbing the mountain for hours and then riding down it. This significantly cuts the cost of riding, although it comes at a price as well. It’s more dangerous than resort riding, so training on avalanche safety is required. And again, this isn’t a forever solution. But it sure is a ton of fun for now.


Our climb at Roger's Pass in Glacier National Park, Canada




To avoid the money crunch, some resorts have combined a few of these ideas, to find a viable medium-term solution. One of these resorts is Silverton Mountain, in Colorado. Colorado is one of the most elevated areas in the USA, so their resort has stable, low temperatures, for now. In addition, they have one chairlift, to cut costs of a lift ticket. From the top, the riders can choose a multitude of open and tree-covered terrain that feels a lot like the descent of an untamed mountain. This resort bridges the gap between ski touring and resort riding.


The Future of Riding


It now seems inevitable that skiing and snowboarding may never be the same in 100 years or sooner. Resorts and backcountry riding will give way to warmer temperatures, wetter snow, and possibly no snow at all.


But perhaps there’s a silver lining here after all. No, the silver lining is not that we can still lower emissions and save the planet. That doesn’t seem to be on the table. But what we can do, is try some snowboarding alternatives that will keep our dreams alive.


Sandboarding looks pretty fun. I’ve never tried it, but it seems like it works reasonably well, and might even be more fun, due to the very consistently smooth ride and softer falls.


Indoor skiing and snowboarding is popular in some parts of the world. This will never feel the same as riding down a huge mountain outdoors with a beautiful view and fresh snow, but that’s okay. There’s a possible future in which indoor resorts are large and steep. Snow technology may even advance enough to create light fresh snow that feels just like the real thing. In my opinion, this is the best case scenario for the future of snow sports.


inquirer.com




So, the future of snow sports isn’t completely in shambles. There are possible alternatives for our great grandchildren to enjoy the sports we grew up on. And if all else fails, let’s climb a mountain while we still can, and enjoy the ride.


Thanks for reading. A like or comment would be much appreciated!


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