Reimagining Ski Resort Sustainability in the Era of Climate Change

Nestled high in the French Alps lies a small family skiing resort, La Sambuy. Since the 1960s, La Sambuy had been a winter wonderland, attracting skiers and, in later years, snowboarders from all corners of the world. However, as the years rolled by, a shadow loomed over this picturesque paradise: the effects of climate change had begun to take their toll. The once-reliable snowfall patterns had become erratic, and the winters grew shorter and warmer. Their single ski lift was only open for four weeks in the 2022-2023 season, leading the management at La Sambay to make the difficult decision to close its ski operations due to a lack of snow and financial challenges. (Hardy, 2023)

“This resort has always run at a loss,” said Jacques Dalex, the mayor of Faverges-Seythenex where the resort is located, “and the town has always funded it. We can accept a deficit of €150,000 to €200,000 a year. More than that is difficult.” (Hardy, 2023)

While La Sambay is a small one-lift resort in the French Alps, its story is becoming increasingly common as ski resorts, especially those at lower elevations, grapple with the impact of climate change on their snow seasons.

Shorter Ski Seasons

Where I live in Northern Vermont, near Mount Mansfield, stands Stowe Mountain Resort, a popular destination for winter sports enthusiasts. However, changes in snow conditions, driven by climate change, are prompting Stowe and other Vermont ski destinations to prepare for shifts in the winter tourism economy.

The Vermont Climate Assessment, issued in November 2021, revealed that winters in the region are getting warmer by almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900. The freeze-free period has extended by three weeks since 1960, which means that the season for snow sports is becoming shorter. The report suggests that downhill skiing, aided by snowmaking, will likely remain viable in Vermont until around 2050. However, by 2080, the ski season in Vermont could be shortened by up to two weeks, posing challenges for ski areas. (Waugh, 2021)

To address these changes, Vermont and its ski resorts are investing in high-grade snowmaking technology and other strategies to maintain quality snow conditions. The ski industry and local communities are working together to monitor and address the challenges posed by changing snow conditions and ensure the sustainability of winter tourism in the region.

Melting Glaciers

Glaciers are integral to many ski resorts worldwide, but climate change is causing them to shrink. Even iconic glaciers like Zermatt in Switzerland, Stubai Glacier in Austria, and Whistler-Blackcomb in Canada are not immune. This trend is not limited to ski resorts, as it is a global phenomenon.

Mount Rainier, at 14,411 ft, is in the Cascade Range of Washington State. The stunning mountain, containing the largest contiguous glacier in the continental United States, illustrates the situation. Mount Rainier contains more than five times the glacier area of all the other Cascade volcanoes combined. It once had 29 glaciers, but now at least one is gone, possibly three. The remaining glaciers are nearly half their former size. This trend reflects a global reality: mountain glaciers are disappearing due to rising global temperatures, primarily driven by the burning of fossil fuels. (Sengupta, 2023)

Shrinking glaciers have significant environmental impacts. They supply freshwater resources to downstream communities, and their retreat can affect water availability for both people and ecosystems. Additionally, glacier meltwater contributes to rising sea levels, leading to coastal erosion and increased vulnerability for coastal communities. (Sengupta, 2023)

Efforts are being made worldwide to monitor and mitigate glacier loss, but the ultimate solution lies in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to address the root cause of climate change.

Protecting Glaciers with Blankets

To combat the effects of climate change, some ski resorts are resorting to creative solutions. One such approach involves covering glaciers with protective blankets made of white UV-resistant synthetic material. These blankets shield snow and ice from the sun’s rays during the summer months, significantly reducing the rate of melting. (Denny, 2022)

Covering glaciers with these blankets can reduce snow and ice melting by 50-70% compared to leaving surfaces unprotected. While effective, this method comes at a cost. Covering all of Switzerland’s 1,000 largest glaciers with protective blankets would cost approximately 1.4 billion Swiss Francs ($1.5 billion) annually. This includes materials, labor, and maintenance.  (Denny, 2022)

Resort operators, governments, and environmental organizations must weigh the short-term benefits of extending the skiing season against the long-term costs and environmental impacts. They also need to consider the energy and resource requirements for producing and maintaining these blankets and the potential ecological consequences.

Skiing in the Rain

The impact of climate change on ski resorts includes an increasing occurrence of heavy winter rains, a direct consequence of rising temperatures. The University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography predicts that heavy rainfall resulting from climate change will wash out the snowpack at ski resorts between 5,000 and 10,000 feet by 2100. This prediction affects a significant number of ski resorts. (Hook, 2021)

“If we look towards the end of the century, the snow will be confined to much higher elevations in most years,” said lead researcher Alexander Gershunov, a key researcher in the UC San Diego study. “Low elevation mountains will be more and more likely to be snow-free.” (Hook, 2021)

In response, similar to Vermont, many global resorts are investing in state-of-the-art snowmaking systems to cover large swaths of ski terrain. This has increased their flexibility and adaptability, allowing them to continue operating even with reduced natural snowfall.

According to Mike Chait, Director of Communications at Jay Peak, a Vermont ski resort near the Canadian border, rain melts snow faster than almost anything else. 

“Think about it like a hair dryer,” explains Mike, “If you brought in a pile of snow and stuck it on the dinner table and watched it melt, that’s one thing. If you sprinkle some water on it, it’ll melt, but it will also become kind of dense until it meets that critical water content percentage, and then it’ll start to flop away. But if you were to take a hair dryer to it, it’ll go fast.” (Cotton, 2023)

Despite these major snowmaking system adaptations to combat climate change, ski resorts face economic challenges, particularly those that depend heavily on winter tourism. The transition to a summer-focused model may not fully compensate for the potential loss of revenue during the winter season, making long-term viability a concern for the industry.

Raising Climate Change Awareness

Ski resorts are uniquely positioned to raise awareness about climate change due to their direct connection to winter sports, which are highly sensitive to changing weather patterns and snow conditions. Resorts can serve as advocates for climate change solutions and educate the public about the consequences of climate change, leveraging their platform to engage visitors and communities in discussions about environmental sustainability.

In a January BBC article titled ‘How Climate Change Threatens to Close Ski Resorts,’ Auden Schendler, Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Ski Company, describes ski resorts as the ‘perfect messenger.’ This is because they provide a tangible and immediate experience of the impact of climate change. When individuals witness the disappearance of snow from their beloved ski destinations, it can generate a sense of urgency and inspire them to take action. (Gerretsen, 2023)

He states, “The role of the industry is to help the public understand what they stand to lose from climate change and to advocate for solutions.” (Gerretsen, 2023).

As climate change continues to affect winter sports, resorts are adapting their business models. Diversifying offerings to remain viable even with less natural snowfall is one approach. However, this strategy may not fully compensate for the loss of winter tourism revenue.

Mr. Schendler points out that while resorts can invest in summer activities, it may be challenging to generate the same level of revenue during the summer as they do in the winter.

“Skiing is a huge business,” he says. “The [economic] throughput in the summer is going to be much lower. You can’t really build a business around hiking.” (Gerretsen, 2023).

The long-term future of ski resorts is a concern, given their economic dependence on winter sports. While summer activities can help, they may not entirely replace the revenue generated during the winter season. Climate change affects not only the ski industry but also the environment in ski resort areas. Ski resorts are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint and increase sustainability efforts, but the ultimate solution lies in global efforts to mitigate climate change.

In conclusion, ski resorts are facing the realities of climate change and working to adapt to the changing environment. They play a vital role in raising awareness about climate change and seeking sustainable solutions. However, the economic challenges associated with a reduced winter season highlight the complexities of this transition and the need for continued innovation and resilience within the industry.

By Jarett Emert