Climate and skiing/snowboarding: a challenging marriage

By meteomorris on 9 October 2018 · 5

What if there is no more snow on the lower parts of the mountain? If the winters are so short that tree runs will become a thing of the past? That the snow cover above the tree line becomes too thin to be able to ride safely? If ski areas will become more dependent on artificial snow than is already the case today? Is that a worst case scenario? And if so, for whom?

Climate and wePowder?

At wePowder we have avoided the climate discussion for years. With the motto: 'we are freeriders, we do no harm', we've kept ourselves silent for years. We love the outdoors, but do no harm? That's a little naive of course. I am doing more intensive research into the climate, the data and the possible consequences since four years. In particular, the role of mankind in the process of warming is denied by a (narrow) part of science. Suppose that this group is right. That global warming is a natural process and that we can not do anything about it? Then all our climate efforts are for nothing?

But what if the warming is (partly) due to people? What can I do as a freerider? Do I have to stop riding to stop global warming? And if so, it is very useful when I quit riding and the rest of the world happily continues warming up the earth. I have conducted this debate with myself as I behave myself in the mountains. Just as I wear an avalanche beacon and avoid a too risky slope in, so I have figured out that it can not hurt to assume that global warming is a realistic risk AND that we can do something about it. Better safe than sorry.

What's skiing and snowboarding without snow?

The winters of 2015, 2016 and 2017 had a particularly bad start. It was dry, too warm, and many resorts didn't have any snow during Christmas. Their investments in artificial snow paid off at the time. Although there was no sign of a real winter in many ski areas, many winter sports enthusiasts were very positive about the quality of the slopes and the snow. A lot of them had a great skiing holiday on the slopes. You could almost conclude that skiing and snowboarding without real snow is almost the same as with the real stuff.

However, in my opinion skiing and snowboarding need real snow. And not only skiing and snowboarding. Snow is necessary for water management in the mountains. Long winters provide a frozen water supply higher up the mountain that melts in the following seasons and is necessary for life in the mountains. If the snow melts earlier, if the water evaporates faster and if we artificially store water and use it to make artificial snow, then this has consequences for water management and life in the mountains. Already during the hot summers, parts of the mountains are spontaneously collapsing as a result of the disappearance of the permafrost higher up the mountain.

For us freeriders, the disappearance of the snow is an obvious problem, but even for the skiers and boarders who are happy with a strip of artificial snow it is a problem. The Alps are very sensitive to climate change. The average temperature in the Alps since 1850 has risen by almost two degrees celcius, which is almost twice as much as the global average.

Those who dive deeper into the data will find that the warming in the higher parts of the Alps now takes place mainly in the summer and autumn, while in the winter it is not too bad. (read more here). That is quite logical. The map below clearly shows that the snow falling in the winter tempers the rise in temperature during the winter in the higher parts of the Alps. The snow works as a fridge and keeps the low temperatures, but it's a different story in the valleys. The temperature already rises there and this result in less and less snow. If the period when there is snow in the higher parts of the Alps becomes shorter, than it could be a self-accelerating process with winters becoming shorter.

It has become warmer in the last decades worldwide and in the Alps too.

Consequences for skiing and snowboarding?

The eternal snow in the Alps is becoming increasingly scarce according to research by [Meteo Suisse]( html), but it is also noticeable during the winter months. The snow line has risen with an average of 300 meters in recent decades, and according to a number of scenarios, the snow line in this century will be another 500 meters higher. With a further warming up you can think of the following consequences for winter sports:

  • a constantly rising snow line
  • on average shorter ski seasons
  • closing ski areas in the lower parts of the mountains
  • closing (smaller) ski areas that have no or few artificial snow installations
  • the shrinking or even disappearance of glaciers
  • Problems with lift installations because the soil in which they are standing is melting and becomes unstable as a result of the retraction of the permafrost

Consequences for freeriders?

I have been riding powder for decades and I probably will be able to keep on doing that for a few decades. The snow does not disappear from one day to the next, that goes slowly. There will still be winters with many PowderAlerts and winters with fewer PowderAlerts. Maybe I will have to be a bit more flexible in choosing my destination even more last minute, I might ride less in the trees and the winters probably will be shorter, but chances are I can ride powder until I'm a really old man. So, who cares? Or as Napoleon said; "After us the deluge." Life doesn't end without freeriding. In fact, the world survives people anyway. That was an easy idea, because it didn't place the responsibility by myself. Until it started to itch.

I have come to appreciate the mountains because they give me freedom. Choose a line yourself, make choices and ride down. No one who says that something is allowed or not. But that freedom also taught me that I have a responsibility. To the group of friends I'm traveling with, to myself and the people at home. An accident in the backcountry has consequences. Sometimes even with a fatal outcome. But also consequences in the sense that if we can not save ourselves, it's mountain rescue that put their lives into danger to rescue us.

The choices I make every day can have consequences for the mountains, the waves, in short the outdoors which I love to enjoy. It has made me realize that I have a responsibility.

What can I do about global warming?

I have been searching for answers the last 24 months. Suppose I can do something about global warming, can I make choices with less impact and in the meantime keep on riding powder? And if so, what consequences does this have in my daily life? I still do not have all the answers, but I want to share the process that I have gone through and are still going through.

Websites and articles


  • Anticrobotic
    Anticrobotic op 9 October 2018 · 14:49
    Werd. Not flying, ditching the car, consuming less, and cutting down on meat will take us quite far, and force producers into line - but that is SUCH an anti-growth thing to say. -_-
  • Pjr
    Pjr op 9 October 2018 · 19:30
    Thank you for a thought-provoking article. I worry about this and it seems to me that there must be local micro-climate improvements that can be made to slow the localised warming.

    Wood-burning stove soot seems to cause snow to be less reflective - the Swiss are beginning to apply chimney filters. Perhaps they should be the new mountain fashion accessory! But what about the factories in the valleys? Perhaps governments should fund the fitting of filters to make them ultra-clean?

    There could be a lot more electric car infrastructure in the mountains. I hardly see any and with the effect of cold on battery range, that is a problem. The base-level rail tunnels (e.g Lyon - Turin) should reduce haulage traffic with the associated soot and pollution, but some governments are reluctant.

    I also wonder if whitening roofs in mountain areas would assist? On a global scale it’s said to have a big effect, so in summer, spring and Autumn perhaps white roofs in the Alps would help reduce valley temperatures? Again, it could be a fashion-statement for chalet owners!

    Finally, I don’t understand why some resorts (or governments!) don’t do more to protect glaciers. For example, Tignes could use renewable/nuclear power to coat the glacier with nice white artificial snow on cold nights in the summer. That would reduce melt, replace mass and mean the summer skiing was more reliable. Surely a healthy glacier must cool the surrounding area through the warmer months? It could also be a tourist attraction. I know some glaciers are experimenting with this and/or insulating covers. I admire the Ice Stupa projects in the Himalayas where locals create large artificial glaciers each season to irrigate and afforestation large areas of desert.

    Overall, I think we can do things to help improve the situation if local communities, lift companies and governments are supportive.
  • Chester_Tartsnatcher
    Chester_Tartsnatcher op 12 October 2018 · 04:26
    It all begins with choices I make.

    This is not someone else's or some governments or some countries responsibility.

    It all beings in the heart.
    Reminds me of Daevid Allen (of GONG infamy) with Gentle Genie's "Blame the Rich". Give it a listen.

    In America, we can not ski unless we drive. So I am part of the problem. Sometimes I go to a place where I only have to drive 6 miles, Silverton. Most of the time I have to drive 1 to 2 hours each way any day I ski.

    We have no sense of community in the states, and I am guilty of causing the problem.

    I travel to the Alps to ski and prefer to use the trains since I think they help minimize my impact after a long plane flight.

    I accept I am part of the problem, but no threat or shame of hypocrisy keeps me from acknowledging the problem and willing a solution by at least doing this as well as encouraging cleaner energy sources, better transportation options and better political choices that my country fails to make.
  • juancarlosdominguezlemoine
    juancarlosdominguezlemoine op 14 October 2018 · 07:53
    In all French resorts that I have visited and many swiss resorts, there is almost zero infrastructure for electric cars. (Zermatt and Saas Fee have some facilities), but otherwise is its mission impossible. Making the ski towns car free, and allowing for parking Zermatt-Saas Fee style (with better charging facilities) may not help to stop climate change but will go a long way towards making an statement. The Swiss and French must take the lead.
  • richd
    richd op 22 October 2018 · 14:26
    Dear Morris, good article. As a number of people have commented and as I am sure you have become aware since thinking about the issue of climate change there is so much you, we, us, them, the freeride community can do. It starts with being aware of the choices we make and their impact. Flying less, buying local and seasonal, using resuable mugs, cutting out meat, using public transport the list is endless and well documented. However, just as important is that we encourage others to do the same. It has to be cool to become aware... Bottom line though I think the mantra that has also works well.
    Do your best, compensate the rest'
    Compensating our decision to fly, drive, live in a big house etc is not the answer, but at least it shows that we are aware of the decision we took and the impact that decision has and ultimately are willing to dig into our pockets to compensate for it.
    Looking forward to this season and many PA's 😃


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