The Unsustainable Underbelly of Ski Resorts
Every year, skiers, snowboarders, and snow sport enthusiasts of all sorts flock to the winter wonderlands known as ski resorts, ski areas, ski hills, ski mountains, or simply The Mountain. However, in order to offer a Disneyland-like resort experience year after year, these winter resorts have a significant impact on the environment along both micro (e.g. local habitat) and macro (e.g., global climate) scales.
Let’s take a look at the major environmental costs and sustainability considerations associated with ski resorts and how the everyday skier/boarder can help foster a more sustainable world of skiing.
Deforestation and Wildlife Disruption
In order to create and expand a ski resort, large swaths of alpine forest must be disturbed for ski run development and maintenance. Resorts clear hundreds of acres worth of trees and other vegetation to construct well-manicured ski runs and make way for the chair lifts that bring skiers up the mountain. This deforestation represents more than a one-time environmental hit, as trail upkeep requires offseason crews to repeatedly thin out the undergrowth. While trees aren’t always friendly to skiers, they are essentially free carbon storage, so any non-essential move to chop them down has a harmful impact on overall CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Learn more about carbon sequestration in trees here.
These alpine forests within ski resorts are also home to many bird and mammal species whose natural habitats are disrupted by clear-cutting. This human-driven disruption divides their natural habitat into disconnected segments, a process known as habitat fragmentation, which increases predation and exacerbates biodiversity loss overtime. As with any overhaul of land use, the previous species most vulnerable to disruption are the ones to lose out; in the case of ski resorts, deforestation and other vegetation disruption can and does displace mountain critters and harm species diversity in the area.
Ski mountains are also notorious for their extreme water use. Anthropogenic climate change has already shortened natural winter conditions in alpine climates, including unpredictable snowfall, reduced snowpack, and more frequent thawing periods. To combat these suboptimal conditions, most ski resorts employ water-intensive snowmaker technology to blanket their slopes with artificial snow during the early season and dry periods. Snowmakers provide skiers the temporary satisfaction of actually getting to ski on snow (albeit artificial), while the resort boasts a financial profit in return.
The environmental issue with snowmaking is that it is very water and energy intensive. Artificial snow is created by swirling large volumes of water from surrounding lakes, rivers, or artificial ponds in a high-pressure air chamber, thereby freezing it solid, and then shooting out the small ice crystals as “snow.” Snowmaking requires roughly 100 gallons of water per minute for each snow gun, and most major resorts in North America have hundreds in operation throughout the season. This process is energy intensive as well; snowmakers require copious amounts of electricity to run around the clock for sometimes weeks at a time. And as though that all weren’t enough, the reclaimed wastewater often used to create artificial snow also has negative downstream effects, for it introduces the chemicals used to treat the wastewater into ecosystems following snowmelt runoffs.
The long-term danger of relying on artificial snow making to cover up the effects of climate change can be illustrated using a positive feedback loop—which sounds like a rad ski trick but is actually far less cool. As the climate warms and produces more and more unpredictable snowfall, resorts have taken to creating water and energy-intensive artificial snow, which then only further exacerbates the harmful effects of climate change. The cycle repeats itself again and again, worsening with each iteration.
In the end, even the ski resorts know their over-reliance on snowmaking is a losing proposition. If the global climate continues to warm at the expected rate, it won’t be long before even artificial snow melts shortly after it falls. Therefore, it is all the more imperative that ski resorts and their customers band together as like-minded stakeholders to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb anthropogenic climate change. More on that later.
In addition to these snow gun machines, ski resorts rely on other massive machinery, most of which is powered by electricity derived from fossil fuel combustion. Ski lifts, snowcats, and snowmobiles are among the many machines at work on the resort slopes every day.
Most modern ski chairlifts are powered by electric motors with diesel backup engines, meaning as each lift spins from 8:00AM to 4:00PM it is running up the resort’s electricity bill and carbon footprint. Since they run non-stop during the ski day to shuttle skiers up the hill, these chair lifts are accountable for about half a resort’s carbon footprint. Large resorts operate over 40 separate lifts a day!
And when the ski lifts aren’t turning, the snowcats are. Snow groomer machines, or snowcats, are the behemoth machines that smoothen today’s piste runs into corduroy-like groomers overnight for tomorrow’s crowd. The zamboni of the ski resort, snowcats are a marvelous feat of engineering for alpine adventure. Up to now, however, they have been diesel gas guzzling beasts. Sending these creatures of the night up and down the hill burns up to 64 gallons of fuel per cat per night.
While these chairlifts and snowcats are accountable for the bulk of a resort’s carbon footprint, the emissions story extends beyond just on-snow operations. When conducting a sustainability audit, resorts must also factor in the environmental impact of their: snowmobiles, lodge lighting and heating, and waste stream (e.g., trash, recycling, compost, etc.).
Taking this sustainability accounting a step further, a comprehensive application of the capital assets framework would also highlight a ski resort’s environmental responsibility to consider customer and employee transportation to and from the mountain by car, bus, train, or plane and the company’s investments in fossil fuels.
The major point here is: if we are going to take stock of how (un)sustainable the ski resorts we know and love are, let’s make sure to be thorough. We ought to take a holistic view of ski resorts’ impact on and responsibility to the global environment so we can help spark some positive change.
What We Can Do
As discussed, the ski resort industry is currently trapped in a ruthless positive feedback loop—to ensure ski resorts can operate into the distant future, the industry’s most powerful players must help slow the detrimental effects of climate change. Still, many mega ski resorts have been slow to incorporate innovative climate-friendly alternatives as they continue to over-rely on the (*cheaper*) fossil fuel industry. Now, the environmental clock is ticking and ski areas in alpine environments are on the short list of outdoor recreation activities that may be upended by a changing climate. Many of us have seen it firsthand—it seems like every ski season in North America starts later, gets shorter, and wraps up earlier due to a lack of snow. If serious action on climate is not taken within the ski industry and beyond, the entire ski resort industry could be kaput within the century. We need to protect our winters!
Fortunately, skiers are a resilient bunch. We love the winters, and we care about the longevity of our sport. Here are some actions we take to make the resort experience more sustainable while we advocate for the skiing's future:
1. Encourage your favorite resorts to put their money where their mouth is
Ski resorts’ #1 priority is the satisfaction and repeat business of their customers. The more they hear from the skiers that frequent their resorts that a commitment to sustainability is a deciding factor in where they ski, the more likely they are to take appropriate action. The world’s largest resort companies are listening. They have to. As their major stakeholders, we have the power to encourage them to get all the more precise in their sustainability initiatives. (The previous link has a list of contact point-people at each of the world’s largest resort companies who you can email and/or call to advocate for greener measures, as you would a political representative.)
Progress is being made on traditional resort operations and their associated carbon emissions. Plenty of resorts are already making positive strides in their increased commitment to implementing green infrastructure on the mountain. Skiers can visit the National Ski Area Association (NSAA) for a complete assessment of sustainable slopes in the United States.
While capitalization still drives business models, new sustainability mindsets are waking resorts up to the fact the environment is their number one asset by putting their money where their mouth is. Let’s ensure they continue to.
2. Join a resort sustainability team or donate time/funds to nonprofits dedicated to sustainable skiing
On that note, most major resorts have already implemented business teams devoted to sustainability initiatives and environmental preservation. Consider taking your linked passion for skiing and the environment one step further by making it your job (and making these teams even more hyper-focused on implementing organizational solutions to the systemic issue of climate change and decarbonization).
And if that’s too big a career leap for you, add sustainable skiing nonprofits to the list of organizations where you donate or volunteer. Here are a few organizations devoted to sustainability in and around the ski industry:
3. Be mindful of how many ski trips you take and how you get to the mountain
Our ski trips contribute not only to our individual carbon footprint but also to that of the industry on the whole. Each skier on the mountain has the power, and arguably the responsibility, to increase his/her/their eco-consciousness. One way to do so is by limiting and/or being more mindful of when and how we travel. You don’t necessarily have to cut back on your beloved ski days in order to take stock of your ski travel habits. Start with asking yourself, how could I improve? Instead of taking multiple vacations a season, perhaps consider taking one extended ski trip. If you’re riding local, chances are you have a free bus option nearby that shuttles directly to the mountain. Cut back on your individual emissions by leaving your car safely nestled in your driveway when you can. It’s all a drop in the bucket—the bucket of powder waiting for all of us if we can slow this global warming thing down.
On the note of drops in the bucket, don’t forget that buying pre-owned, well-loved ski gear is another small way you can make an impact and lower your individual ski footprint.
4. *Learn to safely ski the backcountry
If you’ve gained some experience skiing at the resort and are ready to explore the greater outdoors, backcountry skiing could be a more eco-friendly way to enjoy your favorite turns. When touring in the backcountry, your precious legs provide all the energy you need.
*HOWEVER, keep in mind that while carbon emissions may be lowered, the dangers associated with skiing the backcountry are incredibly high. Every year scores of alpine enthusiasts lose their lives in avalanches or natural disasters out of their immediate control. If you are interested in getting into backcountry skiing, be sure to do all the necessary research before skinning up the mountain. Take certified avalanche safety courses, invest in all the proper protection, and ease into touring with trustworthy backcountry veterans.
Should you learn to ski out of bounds, have fun and be safe! While not staring down the face of a 15,000 peak, be sure to continue to advocate for more responsible green resort practices. Maybe one day we won’t need snow guns, and chair lifts will be powered 100% by wind and solar.
5. Teach your loved ones to ski and to cherish the mountain
Get people involved, increase skiing's accessibility and social sustainability. No matter your background, there's a perfect ski slope waiting to be skied by you. Let's add more passionate people to the mix of problem solvers.
The Future of Skiing Must be Without Fossil Fuels
Finally, with all these ties to environmentally destructive activity, it may seem tempting to vilify skiing, and perhaps to write it off altogether. However, let’s remember it is not the sport of skiing that drives the climate crisis. The sport of skiing has the power to inspire new groups of outdoor enthusiasts, to foster deep connections with the mountains and each other, and to move people to take care of the alpine environment they love. The principal issue is not skiing itself but rather how the industrialized nations who appreciate the sport power their economies. In a world driven primarily by fossil fuel combustion, even sustainable outdoor activities will fall short of eco-friendliness. Skiing and ski resorts can and must improve their commitment to sustainability to meet the pressing needs of our changing climate and ensure their longevity. As they do so, the ski fanatics of the world must adapt and innovate as well. In a decarbonized world, skiing can work.
About the Author
George Kingston is an all-out outdoorsperson. He holds a B.A. in Political Science and an M.S. in Sustainability Science & Practice from Stanford University. His training has motivated him to advocate for greater sustainability and accessibility within outdoor activities. These days, George is working as an actor and screenwriter to depict our relationships with the natural world.