Saving our winters

There are a number of reasons to care about climate change (more extreme weather events, sea level rise, loss of crops, temperature-related illnesses, etc). For me there is also a less dramatic and selfish reason: I love to ski and I know that a small change in temperature could be the difference between a powder day and a rainy day! I have skied my entire life and I’d like to continue until I’m too old to bend my knees!

Climate change can seem like a distant threat. The threat on the snow sports industry however is real. I grew up in the south of France and learned to ski in the Southern Alps mostly in small, relatively low-altitude and sunny resorts. These resorts have suffered lately because of warmer temperatures and lack of snow. The United Nations Environment Programme has identified the ski industry as one of the most vulnerable to climate change.

Scientists are telling us that because of global warming only 10 of the 19 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics will be cold enough to host them again by 2050, and by 2100, only 6. The length of snow seasons in the Northern Hemisphere has dropped by 5.3 days per decade since the winter of 1972-73. In the last 70 years, ski areas in the Swiss Alps have seen a 15-25 percent decrease in winter snow. The ‘Austrian Climate Change Assessment Report 2014’ says average temperatures in Austria have risen by almost two degrees Celsius since 1880, compared with a global rise of less than one degree in the same period.

mountain valley alps

Vallée Blanche

I skied the Vallée Blanche two years ago and witnessed how the Mer de Glace has shrunk over the years: since the installation of the cable car in 1988, operators have had to add 367 steps to access the retreating glacier. I also skied Whistler last winter during one of the warmest winters on records and could only ski on a few high-altitude runs.


The impacts are clear: shorter winters, inability to make artificial snow, decreased average snowpack and fewer annual skier visits. This is not just about our enjoyment of skiing. Winter sports are an important economic activity in mountain communities. Tourism activities in the French Alps generate close to EUR 50 billion in annual turnover.

The ski industry is the canary in the cold mine for climate change. Much of the industry is trying to be part of the solution. For example, Jackson Hole is 100 percent wind powered and in the whole of the Kitzsteinhorn region in Austria no fossil fuels are used. However, they cannot do this alone.

Ski resort with no snow

Whistler during winter 2015

At the end of November/early December, world leaders will meet in Paris for another Conference Of the Parties (COP21) to discuss climate change. The expectations are that a deal will be reached.

The world’s two largest emitters, China and the U.S. have already committed to reduce their emissions and have set out policies to reach their respective targets. All other countries, including large emitters such as India and the European Union, have submitted their own CO2 reduction plans.

I encourage you to sign the petition from the Climate Reality Project’s I am Pro Snow programme to put pressure on world leaders to sign an ambitious CO2 reduction agreement in Paris.

I also encourage you to consider what else you can do in your life. We all know there are plenty of things that we can do to reduce our carbon footprint and save our winters: making our homes more efficient, driving less and/or more efficiently, taking the train rather than flying when possible, recycling, eating less meat and dairy and supporting renewable energy.

Nicolas Desolino is a sustainability specialist and keen skier. He has helped a number of organisations with their sustainability programmes.

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