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Going, going gone?

Bob Berwyn

The potential impacts of global warming on the ski industry have been the subject of speculative discussion for years, but researchers are now trying to quantify those effects and have disclosed some startling results.If some of the most commonly observed climate change models pan out, some ski areas in Canada might have to increase snowmaking capacities by up to 187 percent during the next 50 years, according to a report presented in early December at the 5th World Conference on Sport and Environment in Turin, Italy.Of course, it goes without saying that there are still a handful of skeptics out there who debunk the entire theory of global warming, but scientific consensus is growing.A team of Swiss geographers and economists compiled as much data as they could to present at the conference, concluding that, while global warming presents a challenge for the tourism industry in mountain regions, resort will be able to adapt, albeit with significant costs.The report also suggests that the tourism industry should focus on mitigation strategies that are in its own best interests. “This holds particularly true for the traffic generated by national and international tourism and, above all, for air traffic. Tourist development and tourist projects not only need to be verified and evaluated in terms of their social and environmental compatibility but must also be assessed from the climate-compatibility angle,” according to the report.The basic assumption among Europeans who study the connection between climate change and winter sports is that the snowline will climb, making it tougher for low-elevation resorts to provide a consistent experience. However, the Swiss team concluded that North American resorts won’t feel the effects as strongly, at least in the early stages, due to higher elevation and a more developed snowmaking infrastructure.Lower winter tourism earnings could reinforce economic disparities between urban areas and less developed alpine regions in Europe. And the ski tourism industry will reach ever higher in search of reliable snow conditions, leading to a geographic concentration of winter sports activities and putting more pressure on sensitive high mountain environments.For Switzerland, where there is a wealth of data, the researchers even tried to quantify the financial impacts, calculating that the cost of global warming could tally as high as $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion annually. Part of that cost could come in direct taxpayer subsidies to marginal operations, according to the report.The researchers also found that ski tourism officials clearly have an ambivalent attitude on the issue. On one hand, they downplay potential consequences and pan media coverage of the topic; on the other hand, they also use climate change impacts as an argument for new snowmaking proposals and for expanding into higher terrain.European winter tourism officials agree that winter sports can only survive in the Alps if resorts can guarantee snow. Climate change can be viewed as a catalyst that will reinforce and accelerate the pace of structural change in the industry, according to the report.The researchers warned against adopting a fatalistic business-as-usual attitude, already exhibited by operators of smaller, low-elevation ski areas who are already feeling the financial pinch.


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