First tracks

G Magazine

The snow of the Australian alps is in danger of disappearing.

skiing in Australia

Climate change is threatening the fragile snows of Australia. In a few short years Australians may have no ski-season at all.

Credit: Perisher Blue ski resort

- Advertisement -

Fading daylight, crisp morning air, cold sheets at night. These signs can only mean one thing: winter's here and along with it a new ski season. It's hard to control the anticipation of carving turns, bouncing through snow gums, enjoying the beautiful mountain scenery.

Unfortunately this fun comes at a cost. In fact, heading to the snow is not a low-impact holiday - transport, equipment hire, accommodation, lift passes, lessons, and more than one hot chocolate on the slope. But the impact goes beyond your hip pocket as you leave behind more than just tracks in the fresh morning snow.

With the ever-increasing threat of global warming, an Australian snow holiday looks increasingly endangered. But ski resorts are greening up and they're asking skiers to do their bit to make sure there's snow for ski seasons to come.

High altitude impact

That ski resorts are there in the first place means the delicate alpine environment has been altered. Trees have been cut down and slopes graded to clear the way for ski runs; ski lifts and lodges have been built on the slopes; water has been dammed for snowmaking and supplying water to the villages; roads have been constructed for supply routes and masses of visiting tourists. Not exactly low impact.

"If you look at the way the resorts - particularly those in Australia - have been built in the past, they're not particularly environmentally friendly," says Ben Derrick, natural resource manager at the Falls Creek resort in Victoria.

Ski resort development in Australia coincided with the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, which brought ski-minded European immigrants to the high country in the 1940s and 1950s. Thredbo was one of the first resorts built, opening in 1957.

Back then, says Derrick, environmental consciousness wasn't really at the forefront of resort priorities. The alpine resorts in the national parks "have really been done ad hoc without much appreciation of how they impact the environment."

While the construction of ski resorts invariably damaged the local environment at the time, since the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) took over control of the alpine lands in 1967, operators have had to run the resorts more in line with other national parks.

"Any development has to have an environmental assessment," says Andrew Harrigan, resort manager of the Snowy Mountain region for NPWS. "It's about getting the balance right. No one wants to see significant impact on the alpine environment but no one wants to see the ski industry minimised," says Harrigan.

But even without further development, the impact of ski resorts continues, mostly thanks to the visitors - about 20,000 per day at Perisher Blue alone. Servicing that many people creates a hefty carbon footprint: energy is used for heating buildings and running lifts; diesel wafts into the air from the grooming machines smoothing the runs; greenhouse gases are pumped into the atmosphere by the scores of cars carrying excited skiers to the slopes; water is drawn from the catchments for drinking water and hot showers; and each spring when the snow melts, the evidence of thousands of littering skiers is left on the slopes.

Warming, warning and action

As well as the daily impact, the looming spectre of global warming hangs over the ski industry. Reports by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), and the United Nations Environment Program predict some tough times ahead for the sport, with Australia's ski industry predicted to be a distant memory by 2070.

Single page view