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Hitting the slopes? Climate change has ski resorts on the ropes

March 07 2024

In the second part of our two-part special, we explore how the climate crisis is affecting livelihoods that support snow sports.

Hitting the slopes? Climate change has ski resorts on the ropes

The mountains provide for the communities around them, and in the winter, resorts rely on good snowfall to attract tourists. As the world continues to warm up, the weather has become increasingly unpredictable, affecting seasonal businesses and tourists.

It was reported in December that the popular ski resorts of Morzine and Les Gets in the French Alps saw their full opening delayed until two days before Christmas due to heavy rainfall. This resulted in a loss of financial benefits for the industry, while also leaving tourists in the lurch as they looked to plan their holidays. 

According to a report in the Guardian, resorts in the alps are some of the most popular ski destinations in the world, with the winter sports industry worth roughly $30bn.

More recently, the Guardian reported on new research that demonstrated the US ski industry had lost more than $5bn over the past two decades “due to human-caused global heating”. The changing weather has also shortened the ski season in the US by five-to-seven days and, together with the cost of making artificial snow, has cost the industry an average of $252m a year in lost revenue.

Additionally, only resorts located higher up can be more reliable for good snow. Last year saw the closure of a ski resort in La Sambuy, a town located near Mont Blanc in the French Alps, as the ski season had shrunk to just a few weeks. The decision was made to dismantle the ski lifts as it was no longer profitable to keep running the family skiing destination. 

 

Resorts are also increasingly relying on artificial snow, which is, of course, water and energy intensive.

In January, it was reported that Spain’s oldest ski resort La Molina in the Pyrenees mountains was struggling from a lack of snow.

With the country facing drought – especially in Catalonia, which is facing its worst on record – using energy and water to create snow creates a difficult position for the resort.

According to a report from CNN, La Molina will spend the next three years testing a new snowmaking technique that is less resource intensive and able to produce snow during warmer temperatures.

The technique is called the ‘Snow Laboratory’ and is run by the Barcelona Institute of Materials Science, and FGC Turisme, which manages public ski slopes. The Snow Laboratory produces fake snow by adding a mineral to the water filtering into the snow guns, which pump our water and air at high pressure to create snow.

With an industry so reliant on the white stuff, should they be doing more to promote sustainability and push bodies to make the environment their number one priority?

Former alpine ski-racer, four-time Olympian and current BBC presenter Chemmy Alcott thinks so.

Alcott tells Global Sustainable Sport: “We are at a crossroads now where we need to start being passionate about it – and lots of people are. Those who may have previously denied that it was an issue can’t deny it anymore, because they are seeing it for themselves.

“We can make this change and hopefully protect it [the environment] so that the sport we know and love can live on. [I think the] sport will be there for a long time, but what we are seeing is the rain level increase.

“Only the higher resorts potentially have the power to survive and that is what we want to change. We want to make sure that all these resorts, and all those that rely on tourism, can survive. Because it’s not just about sustainability, it’s the ecological and economical angle as well.”

Last year was confirmed as the hottest year on record, and was roughly 1.48 degrees Celsius warmer before humans began burning large amounts of fossil fuels, according to the EU’s climate service.

Furthermore, last month was the world’s warmest February in modern times, according to the EU’s climate service.

“Change has to start with the people that are making a living from the mountains and then filter down to snow sports fans, to the tourists,” continues Alcott. “I think they care, and we’ve seen that they do care.”

“Change has to start with the people that are making a living from the mountains and then filter down to snow sports fans, to the tourists." Former alpine ski-racer, four-time Olympian and current BBC presenter Chemmy Alcott

Additionally, Alcott suggests that there needs to be a scheme to celebrate positive environmental actions undertaken by resorts, events and athletes. This can then be used to influence and inspire other locations, tourists, athletes and locals.

Alcott was among the athletes to take part in the Champions For Change event from sustainable sailing series SailGP last year, discussing how climate has affected sport.

She says that perhaps others can learn from the initiatives undertaken by SailGP to celebrate and boost sustainability efforts, such as the Impact League, which pits athletes and teams against each other alongside the sport on environmental efforts.

“We’ve seen from SailGP that it matters to the athletes, and what the league did was listen. They made a solution where we can celebrate those that were following sustainable measures. I think that in skiing, we want to head towards this same practice and the powers that be need to put a pathway in place.”

EcoSki offers the option to rent high-quality skiwear or to purchase investment pieces

EcoSki offers the option to rent high-quality skiwear or to purchase investment pieces

More than just travel

Unlike summer holidays, where those lucky enough to travel need to don light clothes and drag around a suitcase full of swimwear, embarking on a winter sports break requires a lot more – of everything.

When thinking of environmental impact, thoughts first jump to flying and travelling – and this would be correct, of course – but there are other areas which some may not even consider to be of detriment to the environment.

In particular, for a holiday focused on snow sport, additional equipment is required to hit the slopes including mid-layers, salopettes, socks, a good waterproof and warm jacket, helmet, goggles, gloves and more. These items also need to be durable to deal with the stresses of winter sports, including falling over (possibly multiple times).

In the first part of Global Sustainable Sport’s two-part special on winter sports, which you can read here, Alcott noted that being sustainable does not mean having to give up something you enjoy altogether.

This is a similar ethos adopted by EcoSki.

Set up by Rachael Westbrook in 2018, EcoSki has been trying to tackle fast fashion-esque tendencies around outdoor wear. It offers the option to rent high-quality skiwear or to purchase investment pieces.

EcoSki partners with respectable outdoor wear brands, as well as repair and recycling businesses to keep clothing in circulation for as long as possible, and out of landfill.

The majority of holiday-goers rent their ski and snowboard equipment, so why not rent outdoor wear? It can be considered much the same as renting a slightly more expensive designer dress for a special date or event.

“It’s occasional wear, it falls under the same bracket. It’s a no-brainer,” Westbrook tells Global Sustainable Sport.

“It’s a tricky business model but it’s definitely the way that it has to go. I think high street retailers don’t produce their kit in the right factories to make hard-wearing kit. Yes, it looks nice, but even some of the brands that we work with say the fabric they’re using this year is really impressive, but what does it mean for kit that’s being produced without that quality?

“These companies that are producing kit and selling it on the high street for £70… there’s no wonder people would question renting a jacket for £50 when you can buy it at that price point. This is the problem.”

“It’s a tricky business model but it’s definitely the way that it has to go." EcoSki founder Rachael Westbrook

‘Buy once, buy well’ has been a popular mantra for items that are going to take a beating on the slopes. Additionally, purchasing skiwear for growing children each year can not only produce large amounts of waste, but also ramp up the cost.

Producing and purchasing skiwear to fit with annual trends can lead to further waste, but with renting, holiday-goers can look stylish and different every year without sending items to landfill.

“It’s somehow about getting that across to the customers and also the businesses that shouldn’t be producing outdoor wear, to stop producing outdoor wear and leave it to the guys that know what they’re doing. And even the guys that know what they’re doing need to stop over-producing,” adds Westbrook.

Aspen Ski Resort

Aspen Ski Resort

Not all doom and gloom

Zermatt in Switzerland is one resort that has suffered due to the cancellation of ski-racing events, most recently in November due to a lack of snow and challenging weather conditions.

So, it is not surprising that the resort has been working on its sustainability credentials. Located at the foot of the famous Matterhorn, the resort is car-free and can be accessed by train. It boasts a photovoltaics system which powers its tri-cable gondola lift station; electric buses for tourists; and snow-groomers that run on eco-speed diesel, which generates 11% less carbon monoxide.

Other Swiss resorts have taken note, with Flims Laax Falera in Graubünden chasing self-sufficiency and 100% renewable energy. Electricity has previously been taken from CO2-neutral sources and lift facilities are powered by solar energy. The resort also boasts electric car and bike charging points, recycling stations and drinking water fountains.

In the US, the world-famous Aspen resort in Colorado has been aiming to tackle its emissions since 1997. Aspen Skiing Company captures waste methane from a local coal mine to generate carbon-negative electricity to help power the resort, alongside solar arrays. Together with sister company Alterra and Protect Our Winters, Aspen has also been advocating for electric service company Xcel Energy’s plan to close two Colorado coal plants, and replace them with wind and solar to benefit the wider community.

Aspen’s mountain-top Sundeck Restaurant, Clubhouse at the Snowmass Club and Sam’s Smokehouse have all been awarded LEED Certification by the US Green Building Council.

Elsewhere, the resort runs the ‘Environment Foundation’, a non-profit employee organisation that is dedicated to protecting the regional environment and also publishes a sustainability report. Aspen’s first sustainability report was published all the way back in 1999, and its latest was uploaded recently.

It is evident that resorts have been making changes to improve their impact on the environment – ultimately, it is their livelihoods that would be suffering without a good dumping of snow every winter.

However, a collaborative approach from governing bodies, athletes, resorts, tourist boards, holiday-goers and local governments is required to push for the sustainable change that is so desperately needed.

Images: Chase Baker on Unsplash/Bradley Dunn on Unsplash /Banff Sunshine Village on Unsplash/Cyprien Delaporte on Unsplash/

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