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Resting skiierWill climate change decide whether our grandchildren will belong to a skiing nation?

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, my ski buddies and I used to do whatever it took to stay warm during Quebec’s brutal Laurentian winters. We regularly tucked napkins under our goggles to keep the wind and frostbite from burning the skin on our cheeks. We hammered our numb hands against our thighs from the moment we got on the chairlift until the moment we got off. We thought up bizarre concoctions to slip into our ski socks in order to prevent frostbite from getting too firm a grasp on our toes (my favourite was cayenne pepper and baby powder–the former to stimulate circulation, the latter to prevent excess sweating). And at lunchtime we pried each other’s frozen boots off and welcomed others’ toes into our armpits while we all waited for the pain of the thaw to dissipate to the point where we could unclench our jaws enough to speak.

Admittedly, we took a certain amount of pride in surviving cold snaps that could sometimes last from December till March. But underneath the proud exterior, I, for one, was praying for warmth. Unfortunately, it looks as though my prayers may soon be answered.

In December 2003, the International Olympic Committee and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) came together in Italy to co-host a conference on Sport and the Environment. One of the papers presented, “Climate Change and Winter Sports: Environmental and Economic Threats,” painted a less-than-rosy picture for the future of the ski industry.

The report examined a number of studies detailing the impact of climate change on the winter tourism industries of North America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

According to the report’s authors, “All these studies show severe implications for the winter tourism industry if climate change were to occur. While some regions may be able to maintain their winter tourism with suitable, but expensive, adaptation strategies (e.g. artificial snowmaking), others would lose their winter tourism industry due to a diminishing snowpack.”
While global climate change is still technically a “theory,” the report based its findings on the generally accepted climatic predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body that is co-sponsored by UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization. According to the IPCC, worldwide temperatures are predicted to increase by 1.4 to 5.8* Celsius by 2100. While 1.4* may not seem like much of a jump, it’s sobering to note that warming is predicted to be more significant on land, in the northern hemisphere and during winter. In other words, ski country.

What this global rise in temperatures means for ski resorts is a possible decrease in snowfall, a consequent shortening of the ski season, possible landslides in alpine areas due to melting permafrost, and the recession and eventual disappearance of alpine glaciers.

Believe it or not, even the frigid Canadian winter is threatened. In a recent University of Waterloo study of five ski areas in the Lakelands district of Southern Ontario, researchers found that, “Under climate change scenarios and current snowmaking technology, the average ski season [at the five ski areas] was projected to be reduced by 8-30% in the 2020s, 16-52% in the 2050s and 30-66% in the 2080s. Concurrent with the ski season losses, the estimated amount of snowmaking required doubled at most locations by the 2050s. With improved snowmaking technology and additional snowmaking, ski season losses could be reduced to 3-17% in the 2020s, 10-32% in the 2050s and 22-49% in the 2080s.”

With such dire predictions starting to circulate through the ski community, I thought I’d find out what some of Canada’s ski areas are doing to prepare themselves.

My first call was to Sunshine Village, the Banff-area resort whose claim to fame is its 100% natural snow. After introducing myself to John Ross, sales and marketing director, I popped the question: “What is Sunshine Village doing to meet the challenges of global warming?”

There was a long silence. Then laughter. Finally, “Generally, it’s not been a problem for us. The warming would probably help us more than anything because the American visitors all think it’s too cold up here.” Ross went on to point out that Sunshine Village usually closes for the season long before its snow disappears, and that many of the guests could no doubt do without prolonged stretches of -40*. Admittedly, global warming may seem like a bit of a joke to anyone who’s spent a ski season in the Rockies.

But there are other Canadian resorts that don’t experience the same kind of Arctic temperatures that Alberta has every winter. Grouse Mountain, for example, located right beside Vancouver on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, already suffers from its fair share of rain. If any resort in Western Canada is concerned about rising temperatures, Grouse seemed like a likely candidate. I called them up to find out how concerned they are.

“So far it hasn’t really been something that’s been addressed,” was the response I got from Chris Dagenais, Grouse’s communications manager. “I mean, you’re talking about a controversial subject in which there’s some data in one direction and some data in another.” Dagenais recalled a terrible season three years ago, and then last year they had loads of snow. “Global warming will definitely be a concern if the data starts to present itself in a very tangible way, but as yet, without any indications, it hasn’t really been something that’s been top of our agenda.”

Interestingly, scientists predict that one of the overall effects of climate change would be to cause not only warming, but also increased climate instability–wild swings in one direction or another–which could help to explain the fluctuations that Dagenais referred to. (In all fairness to Grouse, the ski area is taking numerous measures to reduce energy consumption; it’s just that those measures aren’t tied to immediate concerns about climate change.)

Low elevation ski hills in Southern Ontario, on the other hand, may have more reason to be concerned, given the University of Waterloo study. At Craigleith Ski Club, general manager Jeff Courtemanche said he’s “very concerned [about climate change], as any responsible business or person in the community or the province or the country should be.” As a result, Craigleith has converted to more energy-efficient lighting, they’ve bought snowmobiles that pollute less, and when choices exist they try to use the majority of their electric power during off-peak evening hours when the power is not only cheaper but is also less likely to be generated by one of Ontario’s five coal-powered plants.

But as Courtemanche pointed out, regardless of whether or not ski hills are nervous about climate change, it just makes sense to be as energy-efficient as possible. “Our biggest expense here at the ski area is electricity,” he said. “And at every area their largest expense will be electricity or fuel. And every area is trying to improve their bottom line, and you can improve it by reducing the amount of power you use.”

Courtemanche’s point was illustrated by the fact that every ski area I contacted was more than happy to talk about how they were saving energy–installing the latest snowmaking technology, retro-fitting buildings, buying more fuel-efficient vehicles, etc. But only a few of them said they were doing it because they were nervous about climate change and what it might mean for the ski industry. Most were just trying to improve their bottom line and corporate image.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with either of those motives, I decided to find out if the ski industry as a whole is doing anything to address climate change on a larger scale. To that end, I called Colin Chedore, president of the Canadian Ski Council (CSC). The CSC is an industry organization whose stated goal is to “increase participation in recreational snowboarding, alpine and cross-country skiing in Canada.” In order to do that, the CSC focuses on four main areas: marketing and promotion; communication and co-operation; research and development; and advocacy.

I asked Chedore what the CSC is doing to meet the challenges of climate change. “The CSC itself is not involved in that area” was his initial response, but Chedore went on to explain that the CSC is actually made up of 14 smaller ski area organizations like the Ontario Snow Resorts Association and the Canada West Ski Areas Association, and that it essentially does what its members tell it to do. And as yet, no one has brought up the spectre of climate change.

The irony of the situation was not lost on Chedore. Here is an industry that relies entirely on cold temperatures and snow for its very survival, and yet the subject of climate change has never come up. In fact, every year the CSC brings together 40 of Canada’s ski industry leaders to discuss issues relevant to the future of skiing, and, according to Chedore, “never once has weather been mentioned.” He sounded genuinely incredulous as he said this.

The explanation given for the ski industry’s general lack of unified action is that most resorts are purchasing more effective snowmaking equipment and are diversifying into year-round activities such as water slides and golf courses in order to make their ski operations less vulnerable to poor snow years. Add to that the fact that climate change is erroneously believed by many to be something that exists as a tangible problem only in the distant future (a belief disputed by many climatologists), and it’s not hard to understand why some ski areas see little financial incentive to combat the problem on a large scale.

In the U.S., however, the industry as a whole has taken a more proactive approach to climate change. In the summer of 2000, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) created an “environmental charter” to encourage resorts to decrease their environmental footprint. One hundred and thirty resorts adopted the charter right away, and that number has since grown to 175.

In 2003, the NSAA and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) specifically targeted climate change by implementing a program called “Keep Winter Cool”. The campaign, aimed at raising public awareness of the potential impact of climate change on winter recreation, has the dual result of encouraging the public to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions while also giving the resorts an opportunity to “green” their image. For instance, some resorts have used the program to brag about their windpowered lifts, while others talk up their use of solar power or bio-diesel. The campaign also gives environmental organizations a chance to draw attention to their own energy-saving programs. One such organization, Colorado-based skicarpool.com, enables local skiers to reduce car emissions by sharing rides to and from the ski hill.

Campaigns like this, while probably at least 50 per cent “greenwash” (i.e. driven by PR departments and lacking in real substance), at least recognize that skiers themselves have a large role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The truth is, one of skiing’s largest contributions to climate change is not from the resorts themselves, but from the hundreds of thousands of vehicles (big vehicles) driven to and from ski hills every weekend. For example, driving an average car from Vancouver to Whistler and back results in 65 kilograms of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. Change that average car into an average SUV (skier’s vehicle of choice) and the total emissions rise to about 90 kilograms. Fill Whistler’s parking lots with 3,000 vehicles, assume a third of them are SUVs (anyone who’s ever seen Whistler’s parking lots knows that this figure is grossly underestimated), and you’re looking at 220,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide. (The numbers for the Calgary-Banff, Toronto- Collingwood and Montreal-Laurentians routes are worse.) Unfortunately, while I’m sure there are at least a few dozen eco-skiers out there who pack five people into a hybrid every time they head to the hill, it’s clear that a far larger proportion of skiers continue to drive half-empty SUVs. Without concrete incentives to do otherwise, it’s likely that the trend of big skier vehicles will continue.

So what would it take to convince skiers to do more to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions? Financial incentives for people who carpool or drive more fuel-efficient cars? Preferred parking for cleaner vehicles or ones with three or more people in them? Better bus systems to bring people from the cities to the ski hills? Perhaps the revival of the old ski trains that used to take skiers from Vancouver to Whistler, Calgary to Banff and from Toronto to Collingwood?

These are all initiatives that individual resorts could work on by themselves, but not many are likely to do so unless the initiatives somehow become the industry norm. But it’s where the Canadian Ski Council could come in. In light of the fact that the predictions of skiing’s demise are coming from respected institutions like the IOC and the UN, it would be irresponsible for the members of the CSC not to take them seriously. In fact, the CSC should be playing a lead role in the fight against global climate change, if for no other reason than to help ensure skiing’s long-term survival.

Given the organization’s four existing areas of expertise, playing such a role would be a perfect fit. The CSC could use its marketing and promotions expertise to initiate a program similar to the Keep Winter Cool campaign in the U.S.; it could put its communication and co-operation skills to use by coming up with an environmental charter of its own and encouraging Canadian ski areas to adopt it; and it could play a lead role in lobbying federal and provincial governments to enact legislation and implement programs to curb Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. At the very least, the CSC should be conducting research to determine how climate change might affect ski areas across the country, and what they can do to mitigate its effects.

What’s clear is that we skiers have a special responsibility to fight climate change, if for no other reason than to save the sport that many of us grew up with (although there are obviously plenty of other good reasons to fight climate change). According to the Print Measurement Bureau, almost five-million Canadians either ski or snowboard, and the ski and snowboard industry as a whole accounts for a sizable percentage of the country’s $50-billion tourism industry. In other words, mobilized under the banner of the Canadian Ski Council and the organizations it’s comprised of, skiers and snowboarders could become a very powerful lobby group.

But to do that, we need to start looking beyond the next season, or even the next 10 seasons. We need to start looking at the future of skiing 50-100 years down the road–not what the sport will look like for our children, but what it will look like for our great-grandchildren. And if we want them to be able to enjoy what many of us have taken for granted our whole lives–winter–now is the time to act.

Mark Mallet
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