In early May, the Alpine Resorts Co-ordinating Council (*) (ARCC) hosted the ‘Alpine Industry Conference’ in Marysville.

While many participants were understandably focused on the imminent announcement about what will happen to the alpine resort management boards, and the overall theme of the conference was ‘managing a changing landscape’, a key issue was the threat posed by climate change to the very survival of the ski industry.

Change in governance models

At present, the Victorian alpine resorts are managed by separate boards (Mt Stirling and Mt Buller are managed by a single board).  This structure of governance has been described as “complex and ineffective” and the government is looking into other alternatives. These are outlined in the report Alpine Resorts Governance Reform.

The report makes two proposals: the first is for a single authority for all six resorts in the state, headed by one chief executive, and the other would split the northern resorts (Falls Creek, Hotham, Buller and Stirling) and the southern (Baw Baw and Lake Mountain) into two similar bodies. An announcement about the preferred government option is expected soon.

There were a series of excellent presentations on government priorities and trends in the outdoor/ skiing sectors. But the most pressing issue on the table was the threat of climate change.

Climate change

As parliamentary secretary Anthony Carbines said in the introduction ‘climate change is a critical issue affecting Victoria’ and change is inevitable and therefore we need to act now and start to adapt to changed conditions. While we need to modernise our economy, there will be particular challenges for the ski industry if it is to evolve and diversity in order to ‘stay in the game’.

A key part of the conference on day one was the question of exactly how climate change will impact on alpine resorts.

Sebastian Chapman (Dept Environment, Land, Water and Planning, or DELWP) noted that the ski industry has already been dealing with very significant changes in recent years, and that the rate of change appears to be accelerating. Because alpine resorts exist on public land, there is a clear role for the state government to intervene with appropriate policy measures and, in fact, this intervention is essential if resorts are to evolve and adapt to the changes.

Paul Smith (Environment, Energy & Climate Change, DELWP) pointed out the huge economic benefits of the alpine industry. In 2016, around 782,000 people visited the resorts in winter (creating 7,000 jobs) while in summer, around 449,000 people visited (with around 1,880 jobs). Obviously viability of the resorts in their current form is looking difficult as winters get shorter and snow fall becomes more erratic. The ‘status quo of business is not an option’.

James Flintoft (Regional Development Victoria) noted that the alpine resorts generated $709 million in local economies in 2016 but that the length of the snow season really impacts on the viability of resorts. He noted that since the 1970s, the ski seasons are getting shorter. While this has helped drive the diversification of resorts (into so-called ‘green season’ activities like cultural tourism and mountain bike riding) it does underscore how hard it is for resorts to survive given the relatively short ski season that already exists in Australia.

David Major (Parks Victoria) gave some interesting facts on the ecological value of the Alpine National Park – it holds around one third of the carbon that’s stored in national parks in Victoria and produces around 20% of the water that flows into catchments. Having parks that are accessible to many people leads to better health outcomes and an estimated $80 to $200 million in avoided health costs in the state each year. As we know, access to wild nature has mental, spiritual and physical benefits, yet Victorians are highly urbanised and ‘nature deficit disorder’ continues to grow. The parks system is a partial antidote to this problem. People clearly seek experiences in natural environments – in 2016, ‘nature based tourism’ increased in VIC by 15%.

Kath Rowley (Climate change division, DEWLP) noted that ‘climate change is already visible (in the Alps) and accelerating’. ‘We’re at the pointy end of climate change and need to act now’.

Tom Remenyi (Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre) drilled into the specific threats to alpine environments and hence the snow industry.

Tom is one of the authors of The Potential Impacts of Climate Change on Victorian Alpine Resorts.

His presentation focused on the changes that have occurred in the Alps since 1960, and predictions for future change. He stated that modelling is more certain around temperature than precipitation. Some key points from his presentation about the impacts of climate change on mountain environments:

  • High elevation areas will be more impacted by temperature rise than lower elevation regions
  • ‘business as usual’ (BAU) (ie if we keep producing at the current level) will lead to an overall temperature increase of up to 5oC at higher elevations and 3oC at sea level
  • Higher elevation areas are likely to be more impacted by reduced precipitation than lower areas
  • There will be a reduction in really cold days and an increase in really hot days in the mountains
  • Falls Creek will experience the most dramatic changes, with early decrease in snow and warmer soil temperatures and hence localised increase in average temperatures
  • There will be more heatwaves in the mountains and longer and more dangerous fire seasons
  • All models show less precipitation (some areas will experience localised increases in precipitation). There will be more regular heavy rain events in summer because as the temperature warms, and the atmosphere can hold moisture, rain events are more likely to happen as downpours when they do occur. This has obvious implications for erosion as fire seasons get longer
  • Summer conditions will become more dominant in the mountains and winter will be milder (‘July will look and feel more like April’)
  • There will be ‘substantial’ decreases in snow pack across all alpine areas, obviously this will be greater the lower the elevation
  • Higher temperatures will have impacts on when artificial snowmaking can occur.

‘All modelling is telling us the same story in terms of decreased snow fall under high emissions (BAU) scenarios. Areas that do continue to receive snow pack will be increasingly isolated.’

A summary of the impacts:

By the end of the century, under a high emissions scenario:

  • Average temperatures across the Australian Alps could increase by 4 -5°C;
  • Annual precipitation may decrease by 0 – 20%;
  • Snow cover and volume will decline to the extent that eventually only the highest peaks (such as Mt Perisher and Falls Creek) will experience any snow;
  • These changes vary seasonally and across the south east Australian region, influenced by elevation, aspect and distance from the coast.

(Source: Potential Impacts of Climate Change on Victorian Resorts, p 12.)

What should the ski industry do?

As with previous research, this conference re-enforced the fact that climate change is already impacting on the ski industry, and without serious and concerted global action, it will be disastrous in the future.

Adaptation is already happening in the resorts:

  • Some are just diversifying their activity into the ‘green season’ – eg establishing and promoting mountain bike trail networks
  • Most are seeking to make artificial snow and better use existing natural snow (through erecting wind fences to collect spin drift, increasing focus on south facing slopes, snow harvesting (moving snow off natural areas and onto ski runs), etc. A concern regarding future snow making is that “the economic costs of snow-making are expected to rise as natural snow cover declines, melting and evaporation rates increase and water and electricity costs rise.’
  • Overseas some resorts are adapting by developing higher elevation terrain (that’s obviously not an option for us).

But there are two other options that must be considered:

  • A ‘managed retreat’ from snow based sports to other forms of winter activities (eg spa and wellness centres, cultural tourism, etc). This is certainly an option for lower elevation resorts like Baw Baw
  • A ‘managed retreat’ from large scale alpine tourism. As assets like buildings and ski tows reach the end of their productive life, they are retired and not replaced. This would see the end of resorts as we currently know them.

These are all options that will need to be considered by resort managers. Individual business owners and operators are obviously making their assessments about the viability of their operations.

What is clear is that climate change will lead to the biggest economic change of our lifetime. From the Great Barrier Reef to farming to the Alps, change is coming.

This requires all people, governments and sectors to play their part in radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, the Australian resorts are pretty much missing in action when it comes to this, leaving all the heavy lifting to others.


(*) The ARCC is a government agency that focuses on the strategic direction and sustainable growth for Victoria’s five alpine resorts.

Many thanks to ARCC for organising such an informative conference.