Australian Skiing: An Industry Coming In From The Cold?

Oliver Milman, The Guardian, July 31, 2013


If you had ventured to an Australian ski resort in recent weeks, you might have noticed that a vital ingredient was missing: the snow.

Last week, snow depths, as measured by Snowy Hydro, reached a top of 68cm at Thredbo in New South Wales, with the measurement for Three Mile Dam, near Australia’s highest town Cabramurra, barely struggling past 25cm.

The Perisher resort in NSW has a comparatively lush 65cm, although even this is short of the metre-deep snow that the industry considers ideal for skiers and snowboarders.

“We are faring OK compared to other resorts, but it’s not as good as last year,” said Neil Thew, business development manager at Perisher. “It recently rained across all of the Snowy mountains which didn’t help, but we then got 50cm on top of that to bring us back into good shape. We’ve spent $22m in the last seven years on snowmaking infrastructure, which has helped too.”

Victoria’s alpine region is also suffering what the ski industry has admitted has been a “terrible” year for snowfall, with skiing reduced to a narrow strip for beginners on Mount Baw Baw, prompting one visitor, surveying the idle chairlifts, to call the resort a “ghost town”.

The lack of snow – Mount Baw Baw, Mount Buller and Dinner Plain in Victoria currently have no natural snow cover at all – has taken its toll on the industry, which estimates it will attract 1.9m visits this season, down from last year’s record of 2.3m visits.

New projections have reignited the debate over whether this is down to natural year-by-year variation or a long-term decline in the viability of skiing in Australia, driven by climate change.

A paper produced by academics from New Zealand, the US and Australiashow that Australian ski resorts could lose nearly half of their natural snow depth by the 2040s, with nearly three-quarters disappearing by the end of the century. This would mean that there could be just 81 days a year when natural snow depths in Australia reach a ski-worthy minimum of 30cm by 2040.

Dr Ken Green, alpine ecologist with the NSW national parks and wildlife service, has collected snow depth data that has shown a steady, amid the year-by-year fluctuations, decrease in snow depth in the Snowy mountains since the 1960s.

Green said there had been several seasons worse than 2013 for snow depth, but that the current year was in the bottom 16% recorded.

“There is actually no seasonal trend and the climate change trend I observe in my field work is only really seen in the total snow amount over the season, which is now significantly less, and the thaw date which is now significantly earlier,” he said.

Kevin Hennessy, principal research scientist at the CSIRO, co-authored a report in 2003 which predicted that it was likely that the average snow season would shrink by 30 to 40 days by 2020 and urged ski resorts to adapt.

“Whether this is climate change or natural variability remains to be proved definitely, but we’ve seen that there’s been a decline,” he told Guardian Australia. “The decline is consistent with what we’d expect from climate change, but no one has made that clear link yet.”

The consequences of warming across the Australian Alps are manifold. New plants and animals are likely to emerge at higher altitudes, while species such as the endangered mountain pygmy possum will be pushed to the brink if the snow line retreats.

For the ski industry, the adaptation may be a little easier, with new technology helping paper over any cracks.

“There will still be good years and bad years in terms of snow and the bad years will be smoothed over by the ski operators,” said Hennessy. “They’ve made significant investment in man-made snow, which has helped make up for the variability of natural snowfall.”

As you would expect during its peak season for visitors, the ski industry is bullish over its prospects.

“This is an industry that runs in cycles. We have exceptionally good years, average years, below averages and terrible years,” said Colin Hackworth, chief executive of the Australian Ski Areas Association.

“The last 10 to 15 years have seen a lot of money put into snow-making, which has helped iron out those troughs during a terrible year. I can only talk to my experience in the industry for the past 34 years, but the natural snowfalls have always varied. I’ve seen no long-term decline.”

Hackworth said predictions of the ski industry’s demise were premature, pointing to the $1.8bn, and 15,000 jobs, it creates in Australia.

“As more snow-making has gone in, the future is looking secure,” he said. “Also, without skiing, the livelihoods of many people in regional Australia wouldn’t look so good.

“Cheap air fares have made the world everyone’s oyster but you can’t ski in Japan in June, July and August. People want to do both. I see New Zealand as a competitor to us, but I think Australians are beginning to realise the benefits of staying at home as they find New Zealand expensive and the facilities somewhat second rate.”

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