As climate change bears down on us, winters become ever more erratic. This impacts on the economic viability of ski resorts and the jobs of people who rely on them.  In their quest to remain commercially viable, most ski resorts are adopting the double edged strategy of claiming a space in the ‘green season’ tourism market while also investing in snow making technology. A small number are also showing leadership in terms of grappling with the actual problem of climate change. Sadly, no Australian resorts are in this category.

As was reported earlier in the year, Hotham resort has announced it is investing $4.4m in snow making for winter 2016. The includes 18 Techno-Alpin fan guns and a new pipline network around the mountain. These are often said to be amongst the most efficient that are available. The company claims that in the last “ten years we have been able to decrease energy consumption by 30%, or, leaving energy consumption static, increase snow production by 30%”.

As with every major piece of infrastructure, snow making comes with its own environmental footprint.

One of the problems with snow making technology is that no one talks about it, except to boast that it makes for more ‘snow-sure’ seasons. In some places there are concerns about where the water is sourced from, where natural streams are diverted or heavily tapped. There are fewer concerns about where the water goes once it ends it’s life as human made snow. Much of the water that is turned to snow flows into the watersheds they would have gone to (although there are some losses through evaporation). The larger issue is energy use. Making snow is a very energy intensive operation.

According to a recent article by Brad Rassler in the Sierra magazine,

“David Kennedy, the U.S. representative of TechnoAlpin, estimates that newer, energy-efficient snow guns consume between one and two megawatt-hours per acre-foot of manufactured snow. That’s like burning about a thousand pounds of coal an hour—and less efficient snow guns can easily consume twice that. Air compression alone is the greatest energy hog; at Aspen, it accounts for 13 percent of the total energy bill. When you combine snowmaking waterworks with the carbon load of the snowcats that move machine-made snow up and down slopes, you’re talking about a hefty carbon footprint”.

He notes that in Maine’s Sunday River ski area, the resort “made snow on nearly 92 percent of its 663 acres (roughly 268 hectares), which translated into an average of 26 million kilowatt-hours of electricity in a typical year, equivalent to the electricity used by 3,600 homes. Snowmaking accounts for 73 percent of a typical New England resort’s energy use, according to a report issued by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy”.

In contrast, Mt Hotham only has 25 hectares of snow making at present. The new investment in additional snow gums will allow them to expand this area.

I understand the need for resorts to survive, which means extending the season and filling the gaps where natural snow base is washed out. And as an obsessed skier, I have enjoyed countless hours on artificial snow in resort when there is nothing in the back country.

But I find it remarkable that there is such a collective denial by the alpine resorts in this country about the reality of climate change. As has been lamented many times in Mountain Journal, most of the programs aimed at reducing environmental impacts of resorts have been quietly shelved in recent years. Even the fluffy behaviour change program Keep Winter Cool is nowhere to be seen. Both Mt Hotham and Mt Buller have recently been considering expanding the physical footprint of their operations.

There are some good recycling and food waste reduction programs happening at some resorts, and Thredbo has a carbon offset scheme. But most of the more interesting things (such as the renewable energy programs happening at Mt Hotham and Dinner Plain) are community rather than resort initiatives.

As we know, the snow sports industry employs thousands of people and adds hugely to regional economies around the Alps. It faces an existential threat from climate change as natural snow fall declines (and at the other end of the scale, ever more dangerous fire seasons, which run the risk of impacting on the ‘green season’ trade).

Given this dilemma, it seems bizarre that resorts invest so little thought into how they could reduce their environmental and carbon footprint, and hence do their part in helping avert the coming crisis of dangerous climate change.

In North America, where there are hundreds of resorts, there are both the good and the bad when it comes to climate change. There are two dimensions to responding to climate change. Firstly, doing everything that’s possible to reduce the resorts contribution to climate change. The second one is about promoting an on mountain culture that deeply respects the alpine environment and promotes best practise amongst staff, businesses and visitors. Mountain Journal often profiles resort initiatives which aim to reduce direct impacts, for instance through installing renewable energy systems.

Bridger Bowl, a ski area in Bozeman, has been working on the latter dimension: They recently purchased full-page advertisements in four newspapers promoting the importance of climate change awareness and advocacy for protecting winters in Montana.

“Is your favourite sport melting away?” the ad says.

It asks readers about their risk tolerance when it comes to losing winter sports — 1 percent, 30 percent, 50 percent? It urges readers to contact their elected officials about the issue.

“Snow is the ski industry,” said Doug Wales, director of marketing at Bridger Bowl in Bozeman.

The ski area has 200,000 ski visits annually and employees 350 with a yearly payroll of $4 million.

Many ski resorts are making an effort to raise awareness about climate change with both guests and policymakers, he said.

“It’s gone from kind of being a nicety and insurance to a regular practice,” Wales said of snow the ski area makes to supplement natural snow. “I’ve seen that change over the last 25 years.”

I’d love to see our local resorts adopting some of this common sense ‘regular practice’.