Hitting the plastic slopes: Climate change pushes ski resorts to 'weatherproof'

Ski and snowboarding resorts around the world are finding ways to maximize the amount of snow they have and attract visitors with other activities that don't depend so much on Mother Nature.

Resorts look to attract visitors with fun that doesn’t depend on snow

Chairlifts remain idle in the absence of snow at the Glen Eden ski hill in Milton, Ont., on Dec. 22, 2015. A consistent lack of snow due to climate change is a serious threat that has led ski and snowboarding resorts around the world to try to 'weatherproof' their businesses, says Peter Williams, director of Simon Fraser University's Centre for Tourism Policy and Research. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Ski and snowboarding resort operators in Canada and around the world are increasingly focused on "weatherproofing" their businesses as climate change threatens their supply of fresh powder.  

"It's become a common topic in many resort destinations, not only here, but in Europe, the United States," said Peter Williams, director of Simon Fraser University's Centre for Tourism Policy and Research. 

The term "weatherproofing" refers to efforts by resorts to offer alternative activities to skiing and snowboarding so they don't lose customers as climate change makes winter snowfall less reliable.

The depth of these efforts received renewed attention earlier this year when renowned British Columbia resort Whistler Blackcomb announced a $345-million plan to become "weather independent," but the industry started hearing "early warnings" of serious climate change implications at least a decade ago, Williams said. 

Ski resorts can take two approaches to deal with the toll climate change is taking on the slopes, he said. They can adapt their operations to maximize what snow they have, and/or they can add other adventure or cultural activities that require less or no snow, such as mountain biking or Iron Man competitions, ecological tours and festivals. 

For many resorts, the latter has "proven to be pretty successful in not only filling empty rooms that would be there during the snow season, but also in expanding the season," Williams said.

Whistler Blackcomb's "renaissance project" includes plans for a year-round "indoor adventure centre" featuring waterslides, wave and surf simulators, rope swings and caves.  

A skier plows through fresh snow on Whistler mountain — but winter weather conditions aren't always so favourable. In April, Whistler Blackcomb announced plans for a year-round 'indoor adventure centre' so 'guests won't have to stop playing when Mother Nature doesn't co-operate.' (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

"A focus on bringing the outdoors under cover ... means guests won't have to stop playing when Mother Nature doesn't co-operate," the resort's website says. 

It's not clear whether the friendly takeover of Whistler Blackcomb by U.S.-based Vail Resorts announced last Monday will affect the weatherproofing plans, but Vail CEO Rob Katz has said he's committed to expanding the all-season resort.

Resorts that try to weatherproof by changing their operations to maximize available snow often look for more efficient snowmaking equipment, Williams said. They can also target where they place their snow to guarantee certain runs remain open.

'Dry slopes'  

In Australia and parts of Europe including Britain, some mountain resorts are going even further to "try to hold on to skiing," he said.

"They're making equipment that ... you can slide on different surfaces with or without snow" for activities such as roller skiing, sand skiing and grass skiing, he said.

Some resorts use artificial material to create "dry slopes" that don't require snow.     

Dry slopes are usually made of carpet-like textures or plastic, Williams said. 

On its Facebook page, the Midlothian Snowsports Centre near Edinburgh claims to be 'the longest dry ski slope in Europe.' (Midlothian Snowsports Centre/Facebook)

The Midlothian Snowsports Centre near Edinburgh, Scotland, offers year-round dry slope skiing and snowboarding.  

"Don't worry about the snow conditions," the tourism site boasts. "Seven days a week, 50 weeks a year, Midlothian Snowsports Centre offers the exhilaration you would expect from Europe's longest and most challenging artificial ski slope."

Higher is better

Although the effect of climate change on snowfall is a concern throughout the ski and snowboard industry, some Canadian resorts are affected more than others.  

Many mountain resorts in Western Canada have the potential to extend their operations higher up, where there tends to be more snow, Williams said. But resorts in other parts of the country, including Ontario, don't have that kind of altitude. 

Dan Markham, spokesman for Lake Louise Ski Resort near Banff, Alta., said the topic of weatherproofing has "been a discussion for many years," but his resort is "a little less susceptible" to dwindling snowfalls than others.  

"We're further inland, the temperatures are a lot cooler and we're much higher," he said. "So that certainly helps an awful lot." 

Lake Louise Ski Resort's altitude and location in Alberta help mitigate the effects of reduced snowfall that many Canadian resorts have experienced, a spokesman says. But the business can still be affected when temperatures are unseasonably warm in Calgary, where many of the resort's customers live. (Nicole Estabrooks)

But unseasonably warm temperatures in other parts of the province where many of the resort's clients live can still have a detrimental effect on business, he said. 

"You can have 25 C in Calgary and it can be snowing at Lake Louise," Markham said. "[But] if it's 25 C and people are golfing in Calgary in March, people have a tough time getting excited to go out skiing."

The resort runs non-skiing activities, including a sightseeing gondola. He said the intent behind them wasn't necessarily to weatherproof, but to attract visitors who don't ski or snowboard. 

Resorts cutting emissions

Overall, ski resort operators are adapting to the "challenges" presented by climate change, said Geraldine Link, director of public policy at the National Ski Areas Association. Most of the Colorado-based association's members are American. 

"We have made significant investments in efficient snowmaking and grooming technologies in order to offer skiers and snowboarders reliable, high-quality snow surfaces both early season, and in low snow years," Link said in an email to CBC News.  

She said many resorts are also trying to reduce their own environmental impact through the association's Sustainable Slopes program, which encourages operators to cut down direct carbon dioxide emissions from buildings and vehicles, as well as indirect emissions such as electricity consumption.  

According to the most recent report available, 30 resorts participated in the program in 2014 and reduced their carbon dioxide emissions by a combined 1,700 tonnes.



Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.

With files from Mike Laanela and The Canadian Press