The Current

With temperatures rising, many of central Canada's ski hills could be shuttered by end of century: report

By 2080, a worst case climate change scenario could render all of Ontario’s five dozen ski resorts — and half of Quebec's — economically nonviable, according to a recent report that simulated the effect carbon emissions could have on skiable terrain.

'What we would be left with is a sort of shell of the current regional market in Ontario,' says Daniel Scott

Climate change could have a significant impact on areas that rely on ski tourism, like the towns around Blue Mountain resort, pictured, in Ontario. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

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By 2080, a worst case climate change scenario could render all of Ontario's five dozen ski resorts economically nonviable, according to a recent report that simulated the effect carbon emissions could have on skiable terrain.

"If you look long term into the late decades of this century … what we would be left with is a sort of shell of the current regional market in Ontario. Quebec would do better," said Daniel Scott, the chair of the University of Waterloo's Master of Climate Change program and one of the study's co-authors.

Quebec would fare better, the report finds, thanks to its colder climate and higher elevations.

Still, Scott says the length of ski seasons in both provinces could drop between 12 and 21 per cent by 2050, depending on how much temperatures rise.

The study, published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism in late 2019, evaluated the number of days ski resorts in Ontario, Quebec and the U.S. northeast would be able to open, coupled with their ability to produce artificial snow, as global temperatures rise.

Scott and his team projected the average ski season length in 2050 and 2080 based on low and high warming scenarios.

Ski resorts in Ontario and Quebec are already feeling the pinch with shorter seasons and the need for more artificial snow. (Submitted by Daniel Scott)

While the worst case scenario is bleak for many areas, Scott's simulations project 46 per cent of Quebec's ski resorts could still meet the bar for economic success in six decades, with hills ready for action during the crucial Christmas and New Year holiday season for at least 100 days.

But sticking to Paris climate targets of a less than 2 C rise in global temperatures by 2050 could save many of Ontario's — and all of Quebec's — ski resorts, the report found.

Mobilizing climate change efforts

Climate change activist Auden Schendler isn't optimistic that the Paris agreement is achievable and says the ski industry and its advocates need to take a much stronger approach.

He noted resorts have been shuttered across the Alps and North America due to climate change.

"We have to generate political will, and the way to do that is to get the outdoor industry to act more like the [National Rifle Association]," he told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

Auden Schendler, an outdoors enthusiast himself, wants the outdoor industry to step up and mobilize for climate action. (Howie Garber)

He points to the 17 million member strong American outdoor retail co-op REI as a key starting point.

"You have this vast, powerful, young, aggressive, semi-crazed group of self-described environmentalists. Why don't we weaponize them?"

He would like to see more government lobbying for stronger environmental protections.

Schendler, who is vice-president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado, says his company has been making small efforts to reduce their carbon footprint for decades, but it's had little effect.

"The ski industry is mostly responding to climate [change] by cutting [its] carbon footprint. Well, you could eliminate the ski industry's carbon footprint entirely and it wouldn't affect the world," he said.

That realization forced them to look at how more substantial projects could lower carbon emissions and be replicated elsewhere.

They partnered with the owners of a coal mine an hour away from Aspen, Colo.'s, renowned ski resorts to capture methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, leaking from the mine into the atmosphere. 

Aspen Skiing Co. partnered with a coal mine an hour away from the resort to produce three megawatts of power. Methane from the coal mine fuels the massive generators pictured. (Submitted by Auden Schendler)

Since 2012, that gas has been redirected and used to fuel generators that pump three megawatts of electricity into the state's power grid.

"That's enough to run our entire resort, which is four world-class ski mountains, 18 restaurants and three hotels year round," Schendler said.

Ski towns will feel the pinch

Daniel Scott says that as temperatures rise, it won't just be outdoor enthusiasts who feel the hit from climate change. Communities built around ski tourism will be hit hard.

When unseasonably warm temperatures in 2007 delayed the opening of Blue Mountain ski resort, two hours north of Toronto, more than 1,300 employees were temporarily laid off.

"It's like shutting down a manufacturing plant or something in those towns," Scott said.

"Many politicians overlook the importance of tourism and our economy, and … [in] many, many communities, that's a huge employer, both summer and winter."

While both Scott and Schendler expect ski resorts at high elevations to still thrive by the end of the century, they're concerned that will mean skiing becomes an elite activity for only the richest.

Schendler hopes that as more step up for the planet, their work for the climate will be more gratifying than a black diamond ski run/

"My grandkids probably aren't going to ski," he said. "But I think in the interim, my kids and my grandkids will be involved in a battle that's far more important than whether they ski or not."

Written by Jason Vermes. Interviews produced by Ben Jamieson.


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