Climate Change Threatens Over Half of Europe’s Ski Resorts (Snow Decline)

by Simon Naylor | Published: August 31st, 2023 |  Ski News

A new study published in Nature Climate Change reveals that climate change poses an existential threat to over half of Europe's ski resorts.

With global temperatures projected to rise by 2°C above pre-industrial levels under current emissions scenarios, 53% of the continent's 2,234 ski resorts would face a "very high risk" of insufficient natural snow cover. This could devastate local economies that depend on winter tourism and jeopardize the future of recreational skiing in Europe.

cable cars over snow covered mountain

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Warming Temperatures Put Ski Industry at Risk

The multinational study modeled how changing snowpack would impact resorts across 28 European countries under different warming scenarios. Nearly all resorts - 98% - would be at very high risk if global temperatures rise by 4°C. Even a target of 1.5°C warming, aligned with the Paris Climate Agreement, would put 32% of resorts in dire straits.

Artificial Snow Only Partial Solution

Many resorts have turned to artificial snowmaking to offset declining snowpack. However, the study found this would only marginally reduce risk. With 2°C of warming, snowmaking could lower very high-risk resorts to 57%, and with 4°C warming reduce this to 74%. However heavier reliance on artificial snow requires substantially more water and energy, increases costs, and generates more greenhouse gas emissions.

snowmaking at ski resort

"Snowmaking can help ski resorts adapt up to a point, but it is not a panacea. The solution cannot be to simply pump out more artificial snow. Resorts must reduce emissions while finding sustainable business models."

- Samuel Morin (Climatologist with Météo-France and study co-author)

Low Elevation Resorts Most Vulnerable

The analysis found considerable regional variation based on altitude and terrain. Low-elevation resorts in Germany, Italy, and the Balkans appear most vulnerable. Over 90% of German and Italian resorts could face a very high risk of snow loss with 3°C warming. Higher elevation resorts in France, Switzerland, and Austria fare comparatively better, but would still face over 50% high risk in a 3°C scenario.

"This shows climate change doesn't impact European skiing uniformly. Higher resorts like in the French and Swiss Alps will be relative winners initially. But continued warming spells trouble for the entire industry."

- Antoine Buisson (Geographer at Université Grenoble Alpes)

Economic Consequences

Snow tourism generates around €28 billion for local economies across Europe each year. Diminishing snowpack threatens the livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands employed in the ski industry and dependent businesses like hotels, restaurants, and transportation.

"Ski resorts are crucially important for mountain communities, fuelling real estate, construction, and jobs. If climate change makes skiing unviable, it could lead to economic depression and youth flight in these regions."

- Franziska Kocher (Economist at Munich University)

The Global Ski Industry is also at risk

man wearing purple jacket and helmet holding ski poles on snow covered field

While Europe boasts half the world's resorts, ski areas across North America, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand also face trouble from climate change. Shorter seasons and melting glaciers have already impacted western US and Canadian resorts. Scientists say global cooperation is urgently needed to mitigate warming and protect winter snow sports. This upcoming El nino will also play a crucial role.

"Make no mistake, this is a global problem requiring global solutions. Winter is disappearing worldwide. If we don't get emissions under control, the ski industry faces an existential crisis."

- Rachel Pinkerton (Climate Policy Expert at the University of British Columbia)

The stakes could not be higher for the $70 billion global ski industry as rising temperatures threaten its very existence. While the new European study focused only on resorts in that region, experts say ski areas across the world face similar risks from diminishing snowpack and shorter seasons.

Climate Change Hits Home in North America

Nowhere is the ski industry under greater siege than in eastern North America, where resorts sit at lower elevations vulnerable to small temperature changes. Across the western US and Canada, areas are seeing later opening dates, earlier closings, and more frequent mid-winter melt events.

Whistler Blackcomb
Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort

Glacial retreat and loss of permanent snowfields affect larger resorts like Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, which relies on glacier skiing. The iconic Horstman Glacier is projected to be unskiable by 2040 and has already shrunk by over 50 percent since 1980. Nearby Caylah’s runs at Whistler lost 20 percent of their ski terrain over just 5 years due to receding glaciers.

With temperatures in western North America rising nearly twice as fast as the global average, the region’s resorts are ground zero.

“Nowhere on Earth is feeling the effects of climate change as intensely as western Canada and the US Pacific Northwest,”

- Dr. Mark Johnson (Climate Scientist at the University of Washington)

Australia’s Once Reliable Snow Disappearing

Ski resorts in Australia have also experienced declining average maximum snow depth since the 1960s. Early research shows Australia’s generally high-elevation snow country could warm by 5°C on average this century - a staggering level of warming.

“Australia’s ski industry emerged in the 1950s and 60s when snow was frequent and reliable. But climate change is already heavily impacting resorts. We expect a 20-60 percent drop in reliable ski season duration within 20 years.”

- Rebecca Harris (Victoria University in Melbourne)
a snowmobile parked in front of a building in the snow

Perisher Ski Resort, Australia’s largest, had to repeatedly close during the 2020 season due to a lack of snow. The year before, bushfires got within miles of its slopes and filled the air with smoke, driving away skiers.

Japan’s Winters Warming Quickly

Japan may seem like a snowy safe haven, but climate studies reveal significant warming trends, especially at lower elevations. Data from the Hakkoda Ski Area in northern Japan shows the snow season has shrunk by nearly 20 days since 1980. Nationwide, mean winter temperatures have risen by over 2.5°C in the same period.

“Japan has over 500 ski resorts that have invested heavily in artificial snowmaking. But the trajectory is clear - without mitigating climate change, even high elevation Japanese resorts will be at risk by mid-century.”

- Dr. Satomi Kameyama (Nagano University)

Solutions Exist but Require Urgent Action


While the challenges seem daunting, experts emphasize solutions are within reach if countries act decisively on reducing emissions.

“The ski industry must mobilize to support climate action and transition to clean energy,”

- Kelly Pawlak (Head of the National Ski Areas Association)

Additionally, individual ski resorts are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint through renewable energy, greater efficiency, recycling programs, and more. The NSAA has a Climate Challenge program to support sustainability efforts.

Technological innovations like low-energy snowmaking are also helping resorts reduce emissions and water usage from artificial snow production. New “smart snowmaking” systems can even produce snow at slightly higher temperatures. But in the long run, keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5-2°C is paramount.

“The fate of skiing worldwide depends on countries following through on climate commitments. If we surpass 2°C warming, only a handful of high-elevation resorts will survive.”

- Patrick Bates (Ski Industry Analyst )

Key Takeaways

  • Climate change threatens ski resorts globally, with western North America seeing the most dramatic warming trends so far.
  • Australia has experienced plummeting average maximum snow depth since the 1960s with dire projections.
  • Even snowy Japan has seen ski seasons shrink by nearly 20 days over the past 40 years.
  • Solutions exist through emissions reductions, sustainable operations, and new snowmaking tech.
  • But keeping global temperatures below 1.5-2°C warming is essential to preserve enough snowpack.
  • The worldwide ski industry must mobilize quickly to support climate action and its own sustainability.
  • Over half of European ski resorts face very high risk from declining snowpack if global temperatures rise 2°C.
  • Artificial snow only provides a partial stopgap against warming winters.
  • Low-elevation resorts are the most vulnerable currently.
  • Snow tourism generates vital income for mountain communities.
  • Ski industries across the globe are threatened by climate change.