Climate change to melt away ski seasons

8:29 am on 3 November 2015

Skiers and snowboarders could be feeling the heat from global warming as soon as 2040, with rising temperatures predicted to reduce snow fall and cut short snow seasons.

Turoa ski field

Photo: 123RF

Ministry for the Environment's latest state of the environment report pointed to the impact of climate change on the tourism industry, and said ski field operations could be affected.

Climate scientist James Renwick said all of the projections produced through the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) showed the amount of snow fall decreasing over time, which would lead to shorter snow seasons.

The Victoria University professor of physical geography said that this was also clearly signalled by a piece of work undertaken by NIWA on behalf of the skiing industry a few years ago.

"The viability of skiing in New Zealand is decreasing and over the course of this century skiing will probably become not viable, certainly in the North Island ski fields first, then probably a number of the South Island fields."

In its most recent findings, the international body charged with assessing climate change - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - predicted New Zealand's snow peak accumulation would decline by between 30 and 80 percent at 1000 metres, and could halve at 2000 metres by 2090.

Auckland University of Technology professor of tourism and New Zealand Tourism Institute director Simon Milne said other parts of the world were experiencing reductions in snow, but the industry used man-made snow to mitigate this.

"That means that in the end you end up having to spend a little bit more money to keep snow on the slopes and in the end that does also flow through to the consumer, the skier, because those extra costs have to be passed on somehow."

Mr Milne said the generation of fake snow also took up a huge amount of energy and water which didn't help the industry's environmental sustainability.

NIWA forecaster Chris Brandolino said the ability to produce man-made snow reduces as temperatures warm.

"You've got to have temperatures below freezing to produce man-made snow otherwise it's not snow it's water," Mr Brandolino said.

"So those ski areas without snow-making... are probably going to see ski seasons become increasingly marginalised in the coming years and decades."

Skiers get in their first turns for the 2014 snow season at Mt Hutt.

Skiers get in their first turns for the 2014 snow season at Mt Hutt. Photo: Mt Hutt

NZ Ski operates the Mt Hutt, the Remarkables and Coronet Peak ski areas. It provided data to the Ministry for the Environment's report which showed the variability of the snow season.

Its chief executive Paul Anderson said the seasonal variations were down to weather patterns as well as when the company chose to operate the ski fields to coincide with peaks in tourists.

He said the last season was a good one with lower than average temperatures, but that was due to the El Nino.

"What we have seen more of is variability in what the weather brings, the extremity of the weather affect us a lot more and we have to come up with strategies managing that such as snow sensing which catches snow as it falls or more particularly blows around the ski areas."

Mr Anderson said that mitigating the effects of weather systems was expensive.

"We have to put quite a big investment into the snow-making equipment and the grooming, but the flip side of that is we can provide a much higher level of certainty to our guests."

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