Everyone on the Australian ski slopes loves to chat about the weather conditions, and it’s getting harder to avoid climate change in those conversations.

Away from the sunburnt beaches, hot dusty gums, and red deserts, news for the ski fields, sitting at remarkably low altitudes by global standards, hasn’t been good for years. 

The fear that reports of declining snow will drive tourists away runs deep.

A new report released this week highlights just how vulnerable the region is to climate change, showing the length of ski seasons will decline by 2030.

But there’s some hope: if the world drastically cuts emissions, by 2080 the snow season can actually bounce back as the climate recovers.

The report was commissioned by climate advocacy group Protect Our Winters (POW), which was started by American professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones after he noticed the impacts of climate change on the mountains he loved.

Looking at the existing research covering the Australian Alps and using weather station data, the report forecasts how temperatures and rainfall will change in a hotter world and the effect that will have on the lengths of ski seasons.

Then it offers predictions for different climate scenarios: if the world significantly cuts emissions, or continues on a higher trajectory.

Report author Ruby Olsson from the Australian National University said the modelling considered both the ability of ski resorts to make snow, and a minimum depth for skiing of 30 centimetres.

“It takes into account that you need certain temperatures and certain dryness of air to create snow, and that climate change is reducing the available snowmaking hours for resorts.

The findings aren’t pretty. By 2050, on average, the ski season will be around 40 days shorter under the current trajectory.

“So really dramatic impacts from climate change on what is already a kind of unreliable and variable snow area,” Olsson explained.

Despite the relatively bleak outlook for the years to come, the research, however, clearly shows how doubling down on efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions will see ski season lengths recover, especially in lower altitude areas such as Mount Selwyn.

“The low emission scenario is really positive, it’s only going to be 28 days shorter and even less so for higher-elevation resorts,” Olsson said.

“There’s good news in that if we can continue to ramp up our transition to a renewable economy, then we can save our alpine areas.” 

When snow turns to rainfall

Climate change has already taken its toll on the alpine ecosystem and the ski industry, according to Olsson.

“The contraction in the ski season length is already between 17 and 28 per cent,” Olsson said.

“From an alpine tourism perspective, ski resorts are already having to increase their snowmaking dramatically to deal with reduced snow depths and reduced natural snowfall.”

Tourism operators have been reeling from the season becoming shorter.(Supplied: Matt Wiseman)

University of New South Wales professor Matthew England agreed, saying there was “certainty” Australia’s Alps were warming.

“These greenhouse gases that we’re increasing in concentration trap extra heat and it’s going to affect the alpine regions,” he said.

“These regions will be warmer in the future.”

For the Australian ski industry, an increase in global temperatures by a few degrees will be disastrous.

“It’s no good having a dump of rainfall that normally would fall as snow, in a warmer climate, just falling as rain,” Professor England said.

Billion-dollar industry at stake

Unreliable conditions are bad for business and on the annual opening of the ski season, tourism operators were reluctant to openly discuss how climate change was altering the industry.

It’s similar to the tension playing out between tourism operators and climate organisations over coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.

Protect Our Winters director for Australia Sam Quirke.(Supplied: Sam Quirke)

“As the climate warms due to climate pollution, we’ll see more and more inconsistency in our seasons where we’ll get still get bumper seasons, but we’ll also get seasons that are really hard to operate on,” POW’s Sam Quirke said.

“It’s a $3.3 billion economy across New South Wales and Victoria and 26,000 jobs are employed in the winter tourism economy.”

In its statement to the ABC, the ski industry’s peak body, the Australian Ski Areas Association (ASAA), highlighted the progress of snow-making technology.

“From grooming to snowmaking, Australian ski areas are some of the best in the world at snow management which is why skiers and snowboarders at Australian resorts are in general enjoying more days on the slopes, not less, compared with 40 years ago, despite the challenges of climate changes.”

ASAA said the industry “understands and accepts the unpredictability that comes with the alpine environment.”

Alpine Resorts Victoria, which operates Falls Creek and Mount Baw Baw, said the sectors generated “in excess of a billion dollars” for the Victorian economy.

Ski resorts use snow-making technology to make up for the lack of snow.(Supplied: Tom Roffey)

“So, understanding and adapting to a changing climate is central to everything we do,” Alpine Resorts Victoria’s CEO Amber Gardner told the ABC.

“The alpine sector is reliant on the natural environment so has long planned for and actively worked to mitigate the impact of climate change on the landscape.”

But POW’s Sam Quirke believes there are limits to how much the industry can depend on artificial snow. More artificial snow also increases running costs.

“At the end of the day, we still need to be hitting low temperatures to be able to make snow,” he said.

“With more and more snowmaking … more electricity is required to power snowmaking and also significantly more water.”

Embracing summer mountains

The ANU report recommends the industry start preparing for a warmer future by diversifying its offerings and boosting summer tourism to help mitigate the bad ski seasons.

Some resorts are already doing this with mountain biking and outdoor recreation, but the report’s authors believe there needs to be a coordinated, government-led approach for the sector.

“We will need some level of adaptation, the Alps are already changing. We need to support alpine tourism, other businesses, regional communities to adapt,” researcher Ruby Olsson said.

ANU researcher Ruby Olsson on the mountains doing fieldwork.(Supplied: Ruby Olsson)

Her next project will study the dieback of snow gums, another victim of climate change.

“We absolutely need dramatic reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

“Because if we do that, there is a great chance for all of our alpine tourism and regional communities and high-country ecosystems, and the cost of adaptation will be much less.”

“I’m still quite optimistic about the future of the Alps. I really love the Alps and I know so many other people do as well. So I think that we can make positive changes to maintain what we value.”