Climate Change and the Ski Industry  – is it all downhill from here? 

Limerick Voice reporter, Abigail Hayden, explored what the future of the ski industry looks like in the face of global warming.

Global warming is a topic that has been prioritised in newspapers and political debates for decades, but usually when we talk about the ice melting, we’re referring to the polar ice caps. However, the poles aren’t the only place where rising temperatures are causing snow and ice to melt – climate change is having a similar effect on ski resorts across the world. 

According to the European Environment Agency, the average temperature in the Alps has risen by approximately 1.5°C between 1900 and 2018, with the majority of the increase occurring over the last 3 decades. In particular, Austria’s temperature has risen roughly 2°C since 1880, according to a report made by the International Energy Agency in 2021. This figure is twice the global average. 

The effects of this temperature increase are sharply felt across the ski industry. Hotel St. Georg in Zell am See is just one example of family-run businesses that are feeling the impact climate change is having on the ski season. Balthasar Sauper describes how the climate is “an important factor” for his family’s business, and how they are “dependent on the snow conditions and cold temperatures”. “The last winters in the Alps were very warm and there wasn’t a lot of snow”, he explains, “I feel that it will be more difficult in the future to open all ski slopes. I assume that there will be more and more ski areas that have to shut down their business.” 

When speaking to Snowboard Instructor, Nick (32), in February, he explained that he shares the sentiment, saying that he is “definitely concerned about the rest of the season – no more snow is coming”. He has been snowboarding since he was eight years old, but “never saw conditions like these” when he was younger. Motioning towards the view from the top of the mountain showing the lack of snow down towards the valley, he says “it’s crazy to see. Climate change is real, no doubt about it”. 

Brian Hayden (75), who has been skiing in Zell am See for the past 25 years, wistfully describes what the resort was like when he started skiing: “It would be bitterly cold, you could hardly stand outside with the cold. There was lots of snow around the village, there were artistic sculptures of ice in the village square that were there throughout the winter. The skiing was totally reliable, there was always enough snow and it was always in good condition throughout the day. You could ski all the slopes all day long. The lake used to be frozen completely over. There were paths and benches on it, and people used to be able to spend most of the winter ice skating – the last few years that’s been completely absent.” 

His tone changes when describing the current conditions, saying that he finds “the snow is so soft in the afternoon and so full of moguls that it’s just not comfortable to ski”. He explains how, in recent years, some slopes have been unable to open, leading to congestion on the available ones. This overcrowding, combined with slushy, soft snow, is quite dangerous, he feels, and leads to many people falling and having accidents. He believes “the charm of a snowy village is gone”, as the ‘snow line’ appears to be higher on the mountain every year: “I think year after year we seem to be seeing more and more green”.  

“I feel that I’m only getting maybe half as much of the ski experience that I used to get. I just don’t feel that it’s as much fun as it used to be and it’s gradually becoming less fun.

Climate Activist Saoirse Exton (18), feels that this is “just another example of how absolutely essential climate change is. Even something that seems inconsequential, like the extinction of a sport, is a symptom of a much wider issue that affects every aspect of our planet and society”. She explains that climate change is resulting in the loss of “the hobbies that define us, that bring us happiness and joy”. Exton believes that “communities in the Alps that have been reliant on the skiing industry for centuries will disintegrate as their snow melts”. 

Herr Sauper is not quite as despairing. He explains how “the most important thing for tourist destinations in the Alps is to build interesting offers besides skiing, like hiking, wellness, culture or other sports”. One slight benefit that climate change is having on resorts like Zell am See is that in the summertime, the temperatures in the Alps are a lot more tolerable than in the south of Europe. Herr Sauper also believes that “we all should help to save nature, particularly the tourism industry in the Alps”. He explains that “the ski resorts are all run by sustainable energy in Austria and the villages and government do a lot of things to support ‘green’ projects”.  

The only shred of a solution for the future of skiing is to move higher, as slopes above 2,000m aren’t quite as affected. However, as Brian Hayden explains, “When you go above 2,500m, there’s an effect on your body resulting in conditions such as nausea, headaches and breathlessness”. Altitude sickness isn’t the only concern with moving higher, as Alpine glaciers continue to melt at an alarming rate. 

While the ski industry is far from the only way the general public is affected by climate change, it is one issue that hits close to home for many people and might be the wake-up call people need to take climate change seriously.  

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