40% less snow on Aussie ski fields by 2060

Climate Change

Thredbo skier

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New research has revealed that global warming could lead to a dramatic reduction in Australia's alpine environments and ski fields over the next 50 years.

Records reveal that snow cover at the highest snow course - Spencer's Creek in the Snowy Mountains - has already declined by more than 30 per cent in the last 50 years.

"We still get big years but they're becoming less common," said Catherine Pickering, lead researcher behind the study and an ecologist at Griffith University in Queensland.

"Because our current emissions and our current rise in temperatures are at the high end of the predictions, it's definitely coming to us sooner and faster."

Declining habitats

Biodiversity is also suffering. "We'll lose endemic plants and a specialised community adapted to those conditions," she said. A related problem is the increased risk of bushfires in summer, which are becoming more frequent, but can only be tolerated rarely by alpine environments.

With the thaw date coming two days earlier than just five years ago, things are starting to look bleak for the Australian ski industry.

Relying on snow making will not be a cheap or sustainable solution either, said Pickering, as current predictions suggest that by just 2020 the snow makers will require as much water to feed them each year as the entire city of Canberra.

This would create enough snow for just six of the nine resorts and will require massive funds for the equipment, water and electricity.

Not sustainable

"If you can imagine how much electricity you need to pump that much water onto the slopes, especially when we know the price of electricity is increasing... It's not feasible as a long-term strategy", Pickering said.

Instead, she suggested that the resorts should continue to market themselves as year-round destinations, to reduce their reliance on the ski industry.

Andrew Ramsey, executive director of the Australian Ski Areas Association argued that the estimates for water use are inaccurate, however.

"When we make snow, it melts and we make more snow with it - it is recycled," he said. "You don't need one metre of snow for skiing, you need well prepared slopes."

Ramsey said that today's machinery, such as snowgroomers and snowguns, actually mean that the area we have to ski on is larger, better prepared and more efficiently used than ever before. Because of this, in 2006, despite it being one of the worst years on record, resorts such as Thredbo still had "top-to-bottom" skiing for 100 days, he said.

Nevertheless, both agree that the reduced snow-cover will damage biodiversity. Pickering said that ground-hugging plants, such as the snow patch feldmark and the short alpine herbfield are being overgrown by taller species. Research has shown that animals including the mountain pygmy possum (Burramys parvus) are also suffering.

The Australian Alps - which were heritage listed in 2008 - are one of the four most endangered ecosystems in Australia. The others are the Kakadu National Park, the wet tropics and the Great Barrier Reef. "These areas are internationally important in terms of their biodiversity," Pickering said.

She presented her research last week at the 10th International Ecology Congress (INTECOL), held in Brisbane.