Australian Ski Resorts Forced to Close Early After Disastrously Warm Winter
A number of Australia's most popular ski resorts have been forced to close early this year due to a lack of snow. Resorts across Victoria and Tasmania have struggled through an unusually warm winter that has left slopes bare. Several resorts announced last week that they will be shutting down operations in early September, over a month before their scheduled closing dates in October.
Mount Baw Baw, Mount Stirling, and Lake Mountain ski resorts in Victoria all announced they will close for the season on September 3rd. Ben Lomond Ski Resort in Tasmania has been struggling to open at all this winter. These premature closures come after minimal natural snowfall and warmer-than-average temperatures in July and August.
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Snowfall is Well Below Average
Snowfall across Victoria and Tasmania has been far below average this winter. Webcams show bare slopes at the affected resorts, a very unusual sight for late August and early September when snow cover should be near peak depths. According to Rhylla Morgan, spokesperson for Mount Buller, one of the major Victorian resorts, "This year coverage is significantly reduced. If the conditions simply aren’t suitable, we may close early.”
Mount Buller has been relying heavily on snowmaking to open any lifts at all. As of late August, it had 9 of its 19 lifts operating, mainly servicing beginner terrain. Neighboring Mount Stirling had no lifts running when it announced its early closure. Mount Baw Baw was only able to operate 2 lifts out of its 6 lifts total.
Rain and Warm Weather in the Forecast
Making matters worse for the resorts is the weather forecast, which calls for continued warm temperatures along with rain. Significant snowfall is not expected at any of the closing resorts, eliminating hopes of re-opening for even a few bonus late-September ski days. "We’ll have to see just what happens with the weather in the next couple of weeks, whether that’s possible,” said Morgan in reference to Mount Buller staying open through the end of September.
Ben Lomond Ski Resort in Tasmania had initial plans to open for the season in early July but has yet to operate a single lift so far this winter.
"It is quite unusual in August, late July not to have anything on the ground. It is a bit disappointing,"- Ben Mock (Managing Director of Ben Lomond)
The resort invested $500,000 in snowmaking equipment this year, but even manmade snow requires cold temperatures to properly form.
Early Closures Financially Devastating for Resorts
The early closures are financially devastating for the affected resorts. Most rely on the peak August - September season to earn the majority of their yearly revenue from lift tickets and ski school programs. Mount Baw Baw spokesperson Andre Philbrick called the season "disappointing" in light of their early shutdown. Ben Mock characterized it as "a bit disappointing" as well.
The shortened season also impacts resort staffing. Ben Mock explained how the inconsistent snow cover has made it difficult to maintain steady employment.
"It has had a massive impact on our turnover and ability to hold staff. We’re all suffering, staff are suffering as well,”- Ben Mock
Mount Buller has already had to lay off some seasonal workers due to the conditions.
Major Resorts also Struggling
While the smaller resorts around Melbourne have been forced to close already, even some of Australia's largest and highest-elevation resorts are struggling. Falls Creek, host to the annual Kangaroo Hoppet cross-country ski race, has been unable to open half its lifts. The race had to be canceled this year, a first in its 45-year history dating back to 1978.
Falls Creek has gone without any natural snowfall for over a week now. Mount Hotham has experienced similar conditions, with 6 of its 12 lifts currently open. Visitors to both resorts requiring lodging are being warned of the limited terrain. Rhylla Morgan of Mount Buller summed up the somber mood by saying that staying open through September will require “improved weather conditions next month."
Australian Ski Season Victim of Climate Change?
A question looms as to whether the disastrously bad snow conditions across Australian resorts are a symptom of climate change. Australia as a whole has experienced one of its warmest and driest Julys on record. Melbourne saw temperatures 2°C above average, which translated directly to the ski slopes.
Climate scientists caution that no single warm season can be definitively pinned on climate change, but that Australia's snow resorts remain extremely vulnerable. Warming temperatures will make naturally occurring large snowstorms increasingly infrequent. Snowmaking can help mitigate some effects but requires frigid temperatures to operate.
Australia's ski industry generates approximately $2 billion per year in economic activity. Continued warming over the coming decades threatens the viability of resorts across the country. This season could unfortunately end up as just a preview of far more difficult years ahead for Australian snow sports.
Ski Resorts Forced to Rely More on Early Season Snow
With natural snowfall decreasing during the peak of winter, Australia's ski resorts find themselves becoming increasingly reliant on getting sufficient snow during the early season. Resorts now put extra effort into capitalizing on early summer snowstorms in May, June, and even as late as October of the previous year.
"We used to focus on building excitement for the heart of the ski season in August and September. Now we're putting more marketing dollars behind those first few early season weeks. A good pre-season snowfall can literally make or break your whole winter."- Rhylla Morgan of Mount Buller
Resorts take steps like mounding snow in shaded gullies and tree areas to preserve as much of an early dump as possible. Snowmaking and grooming kick into high gear once temperatures drop below freezing to stretch out slushy early snow into viable ski terrain.
Weather Volatility Creates Scheduling Headaches
The unpredictability of early-season snowfall in recent years has led to massive scheduling headaches for resorts. Setting opening dates, hiring staff, booking ski school programs and travel packages - historically coordinated based on decades of predictable snow seasons - is becoming increasingly difficult.
"We want to open as early as possible to maximize our season, but the financial risk of choosing the wrong date is massive. Opening too early means eating huge labor, marketing, and operations costs without the ability to sell lift tickets."- Ben Mock of Ben Lomond Resort
Once open, highly variable snow conditions from one day or week to the next make staffing levels tough to nail down. Hiring too many workers can lead to overstaffing on rainy weeks while being understaffed on big powder days leads to long lift lines and frustrated guests.
Summer Business Takes on New Importance
To combat the financial difficulties of increasingly fickle ski seasons, Australia's resorts are putting added effort into attracting summer visitors. While skiing and snowboarding make up the majority of revenue, summertime activities like mountain biking, hiking, festivals, and sightseeing are becoming more crucial parts of the business model.
"While winter will always be our bread and butter, we're strategically developing our summer offerings to provide more year-round stability,"- Rhylla Morgan (Mount Buller)
This includes expanding mountain bike trails, lodging packages focused on cooler summer temperatures at higher elevations, and increased marketing for scenic chairlift rides.
Developing robust summer programs requires significant upfront investment, but proves vital in difficult winters like this year. Falls Creek is using its canceled Kangaroo Hoppet ski race date to host a downhill mountain bike event instead, recouping some lost revenue.
Political Tensions Around Climate Change Response
Australia's ski industry finds itself conflicted about how forcefully to communicate the threat posed by climate change. While privately concerned, most resorts shy away from making overly political statements or calls for specific climate policies.
"It's a tricky line to walk . We don't want to alienate guests with different political views, but also need to sound the alarm about the challenges we're facing."- Ben Mock
The hesitancy to take bold stances stems largely from tensions at the national government level. Australia's current administration has been reluctant to pursue aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets or financial investments needed to rapidly transition the energy grid away from fossil fuels.
Searching for a Sustainable Future
Despite difficult political tensions, Australia's ski resorts remain committed to long-term sustainability. Behind the scenes, huge investments are being made to upgrade energy systems, transportation fleets, and snowmaking operations to reduce carbon footprints.
Mt. Buller touts its bioenergy plant converting waste wood into electricity as a key environmental initiative. Falls Creek has set a goal of reaching zero net emissions by 2030. Industry groups have proposed renewable energy targets and sustainable tourism principles.
"Climate change is a reality we can't ignore. Our future depends on doubling down on sustainability efforts while providing world-class experiences for skiers and boarders. It's a challenging balancing act, but one we're fully committed to."- Andre Philbrick of Mount Baw Baw
Only time will tell if these efforts and adaptations are enough for Australian resorts to survive a warming climate. But one thing is certain - the ski industry will continue fighting to keep winter sports alive in Australia against the odds.
- Australia's ski resorts have endured an extremely difficult season, with minimal snow leading to early closures.
- The poor conditions have major financial implications, especially impacting seasonal staffing.
- Climate change creates uncertainty about the future viability of Australian snow sports.
- Resorts are adapting with increased focus on early and late season snow and summer business.
- Political tensions hamper climate change response, but sustainability remains a priority.
- This challenging season highlights the existential threat posed by warming winters.