Winter is here, but will there be snow in Australia and NZ?

Sunrise over Queenstown in New Zealand in July 2012. This year’s ski season is just beginning in Australia and New Zealand. Trey Ratcliff/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Australia’s ski season is finally getting underway, with the first resort, Perisher, opening its ski lifts after some weekend snow fall.

But snow lovers are still watching and waiting for good falls elsewhere, after one of the east coast’s warmest autumns in more than 40 years. It’s a late start to the ski season, which traditionally begins on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand Queenstown’s Coronet Peak opened to skiiers and snow boarders on June 10.

Australia may not boast the world’s biggest ski fields, but skiing is a popular winter pastime. Every year, Australians and visitors make 2.5 million ski trips to the Australian snow fields, while snow tourism is estimated to be worth A$1.8 billion and employ about 18,000 people.

But global warming poses a major threat to snow tourism and the communities that depend on snow sports on both sides of the Tasman Sea, as highlighted in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on global climate impacts and reports on Australia’s ski areas.

Late last year, the ABC obtained a CSIRO report on Climate change impacts on snow in Victoria through a freedom of information request. The report predicts that by 2050, the maximum snow depth could decrease by up to 80 centimetres and the ski season might shorten by more than two months.

Increasingly variable winters mean the ski industry have learned to “make hay while the sun is shining”, maximising their yield for those times when snow conditions are good.

As skiers and snowboarders keep a close eye on Snow Watch reports on Australasian ski fields, it’s worth looking at the long-term trends for snow in Australia and New Zealand.

Can’t we just make snow?

Climate variation is natural, and ski operators have always experienced good and bad seasons. But now climate change and its associated warming means there will be less snow. Warmer air – especially at lower altitudes – means reduced precipitation in the form of snow.

Cranking up the snow machines. dazsweeney/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

A study recently cited in the international journal Nature compared how Australian and New Zealand snow would fare under a mid-range emission scenario.

New Zealand will be able to maintain much of its current depth, although small losses are likely. In contrast, the models for Australia indicate that snow depth could be half of today’s values.

We can translate the model results into days when snow depth is greater than 30cm, the minimum required for skiing. In 2040, Australian skiers could have 0 to 48 days of skiing in the Snowy Mountains. The Central Otago fields in New Zealand would fare, better with 52 to 110 days of skiing.

If Australia is facing future years without natural snow, can’t we just make it snow and keep skiing?

Local climate has a lot to do with whether it’s possible to make artificial snow. New Zealand will stay sufficiently cool for quite some time (although not forever) to allow for snow-making on the country’s higher fields for several decades yet.

In Australia, it will be very expensive to compensate for the lack of natural snow, although an earlier study showed that this is theoretically possible, at least in the short-term.

However, a related study highlighted the practicalities of artificial snow-making, where maintaining skiing conditions in the next five to 10 years would require A$100 million in capital investment into 700 snow guns and 2.5-3.3 billion litres of water per month for the six main Australian ski resorts.

So, skiing days will become less reliable and poorer quality. What does that mean for the ski fields?

Might as well jump – jump! taki Lau/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Hang up your skis or head overseas?

A survey of skiers in Australia indicated that when faced with low snowfalls, only 10% would keep skiing in Australia. Over two-thirds said they would ski less often, and the remainder would held overseas.

Clearly Australia’s ski fields are in trouble if snow continues to decline. They will become less competitive with overseas fields as skiers change their preferred ski fields.

The relative vulnerability of Australian and New Zealand ski fields has been examined in detail. Skiers felt New Zealand was a better destination than Australia. But overall they would rather go to the Northern Hemisphere for reliable snow.

Changes in either Australian or New Zealand snow conditions will likely push ski tourists to North America and Japan.

Queenstown from the air. Trey Ratcliff/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Winter fun without the snow

There are limits to how much ski-fields can adapt to changing snow conditions.

Some of those limits relate to temperatures that allow for snow making; others are linked to water, both for winter and summer operations.

Issues like the resource intensity of tourism mean we need a collaborative approach to climate change adaptation, bringing together individual operators, industry and community groups, and different levels of government.

But all is not lost for Australian and New Zealand ski fields.

Australian skiers don’t just go to New Zealand for the snow. They also visit because there are so many things to do in addition to skiing. For example, hiking, biking, rafting and other outdoor activities broaden the tourism product.

Destinations can diversify what they offer, both in winter and summer. This is recognized by both industry and government who work together on climate change adaptation strategies, such as the Alpine Resorts Strategic Plan 2012 and the Victorian Climate Change Adaptation Plan.

Queenstown in New Zealand is particularly good at product diversification. For example, the ski pass allows you to undertake other activities for those days where the ski field is closed due to weather. Such strategic partnerships are likely to increase the resilience not only of individual operators but of Queenstown as a community.

In Australia, at present off-season tourism revenue is worth about a third of winter revenue. It could be more if destinations develop new innovative products. Alpine tourism may become increasingly popular as lower elevations become hotter due to climate change.

The slow start to the current Australian ski season is just a taste of the warmer winters ahead. Snow machines aren’t enough to sustain ski fields forever – but if we plan now, we can still find other ways to enjoy a day out in the mountains in future.