Ski resorts’ era of plentiful snow may be over due to climate crisis, study finds

<span>Skiers pass on an artificial ski snow slope on a mild winter day in the Barèges ski resort, Hautes-Pyrenees, south-western France, this month.</span><span>Photograph: Stéphane Mahé/Reuters</span>
Skiers pass on an artificial ski snow slope on a mild winter day in the Barèges ski resort, Hautes-Pyrenees, south-western France, this month.Photograph: Stéphane Mahé/Reuters

If you have been enjoying lushly covered mountains by skiing or snowboarding this winter then such an experience could soon become a receding memory, with a new study finding that an era of reliably bountiful snow has already passed due to the climate crisis.

The US ski industry has lost more than $5bn over the past two decades due to human-caused global heating, the new research has calculated, due to the increasingly sparse nature of snowfall on mountain ranges. Previous studies have shown that in many locations precipitation is now coming in the form of rain, rather than snow, due to warming temperatures.

Related: Ski resorts battle for a future as snow declines in climate crisis

This situation, the new study states, has shortened the average ski season in the US by five to seven days over the past half century, costing the industry an average of $252m a year from lost revenue and the rising cost of making snow via machines.

“We are probably past the era of peak ski seasons,” said Daniel Scott, a scientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, who undertook the research with colleagues at the University of Innsbruck. “Climate change is an evolving business reality for the ski industry and the tourism sector.”

An unusually warm winter for parts of the US, as well as ski resorts in Europe, have illustrated the mounting problems facing the pastime. Mountains across France, Austria and Bosnia have been left almost entirely bare of snow, forcing ski lifts to judder to a halt and resorts to shutter.

In the US, sites across the western half of the country have reported less than half the normal snowpack, causing resorts to scramble into greater snow production or scale back their offering to skiers.

“The record-breaking temperatures this winter provided a preview of the future,” Scott said. “It tested the limits of snowmaking in many areas and altered millions of skiers’ ski visits and destination choices.”

Last year was the hottest, globally, ever recorded and 2024 is following this with extraordinary levels of heat that have set new records in January and February. The absence of a normal winter in many locations has been evident in the mountains, with the lack of snow not only imperiling winter sports but also risking a crucial reservoir of water where melting snowpack feeds rivers and streams throughout spring.

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The winnowing away of ski seasons is already evident, according to the new research which compared winters from the 1960s and 1970s with the two decades since 2000. The shrinkage is set to continue as the world heats up further due to the burning of fossil fuels, with ski seasons set to be reduced by 14 to 33 days by the 2050s, even if the world is able to severely cut planet-heating emissions and develop advanced methods to make snow.

Should the world fail to curtail emissions the future is even bleaker, the study forecast, with as much as two months of the year lost for ski conditions by the mid-part of the century if this occurs.

“Average ski seasons in all US regional markets are projected to get shorter in the decades ahead under all emission futures,” Scott said.

“How much shorter depends on the ability of all countries to deliver on their Paris climate agreement emission reduction commitments and whether global warming temperatures are held below 2C (3.6F).”