Ski Resorts and Sustainability

Words by Avery Reynolds

I grew up as an avid skier, skiing every weekend from Thanksgiving to Easter since I was 3 years old. In high school, I skied 7 days a week spending at least 4 hours a day at Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire. Winters were always variable, but recently it has changed immensely. I remember the years when I could ski directly on my porch on Christmas Day, whereas this winter, the slope laid barren till late January. 

While climate change affects each regions’ snowmaking depending on a myriad of factors such as elevation, proximity to the sea, and water available, most are seeing a decrease in the quantity and duration of annual snowfall. The variability prevents ski resorts from seeing constant returns – some winters are better than others. In the present climate, only those above 1200 m see reliable snow cover. However, if the world’s temperature increases two degrees, as it is on track too, reliable snow coverage is possible only 1500 m and above. 85% of resorts in Switzerland are higher than 1200 but only 63% are for the latter distance. Existentially threatened, they have no choice but to act to combat growing climate concerns.

Mountainous regions all over the world receive much of their economic activity from the ski industry. Ski resorts attract customers from all over the world, averaging 55.4 million in the United States between 2001 and 2016. Winter sports enthusiasts added an estimated 20.3 billion USD in economic value to the US economy in the 2015-16 season through spending associated with the resorts and surrounding communities.

However, without addressing changing climates those resorts all over the world will cease to exist. Therefore, ski resorts and sustainability are intertwined. Vail Resorts is a company that owns resorts all over North America and the world. As a conglomerate, they are at the forefront of sustainability, presumably because they understand that they need to be. Vail resorts have committed to purchase 310,000 MWh hours of wind energy per year from the new Plum Creek Wind project. This project will cover more than 90% of the companies energy usage.  In the scope of sustainability, it is therefore important to meet that growing demand efficiently and effectively. Big Sky in Montana, which is owned by Boyne Rewards, has created a project to have net-zero emissions by 2030. Certain French Resorts are seeking to achieve carbon neutrality by 2037. Instead of gaining incentives through government subsidies or tax cuts, there is a sense that ski resorts start moving towards sustainability measures out of the necessity.

The National Ski Areas association focuses on ski resorts sustainability with 10 key topic areas. Such as climate action, water usage, energy, forest management, and climate advocacy. With rising temperatures, more ski resorts are relying on snowmaking to limp through the season. Snowmaking is a difficult and energy-intensive process. Oftentimes artificial snow includes chemical additives, that can seep into waterways and can affect forest vegetation. However, there is an opportunity for ski resorts to manufacture it without them. The only downside is that artificial snow without additives requires high energy and water consumption. Snowmaking is becoming more efficient, and it is probably only a “drop in the bucket” of global emissions but that does not vindicate it from still being problematic. This year’s Olympics for example is the first ever to use nearly 100% artificial snow.  The Games have used over 100 snow generators and 300 snowmaking guns to generate the snow used in many winter sports events.

Businesses are central actors in the sustainability journey, and ski resorts are taking the necessary steps to ensure a stable future. With technological innovations, sustainability steps, and partnering with organizations skiing can continue to be a sport. Certain resorts are working quickly. For example, Saas-Fee, Switzerland runs on hydropower, Wolf Creek, Colorado runs on 100% renewable energy, and Avoriaz, France is making plans to revegetate slopes. As climate conditions change, they will have to adapt. But it is good to see that many resorts are taking sustainability seriously rather than just as a buzzword.  

It is the little parts of climate change that I look back and see the changes the most. From the temperature rating of the wax, I used to tune my skis on race day, to riding up the chairlift and hearing the constant roaring of snow guns instead of the quiet of snowfall. The initiatives taken by both skiers and resorts give me hope, but it is still a long road till the future of the sport can be secured.  

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