Popular Aussie tourism destination 'on thin ice' as region experiences major change

Depending on what we do next, our snow sports industry could either be wiped out in just two generations, or be better than ever, experts claim.

Left - Alex Parsons and her board on Mount Kosciuszko. Right - low snow fall around a walking track at Mount Kosciuszko.
Even Australia's highest peak Mount Kosciuszko is suffering from irregular snowfall. Source: Alex Parsons

Australia’s $3.3 billion local ski industry is "on thin ice" according to experts. New modelling suggests the annual season will be slashed by an average of 55 days by 2050 due to warming temperatures and less regular snowfall.

The country's million-hectare Alps are one of several high-profile tourism destinations, including the Great Barrier Reef and the Blue Mountains National Park, that are threatened by climate change.

Released on Wednesday, the Our Changing Snowscapes report details threats to Australia’s lucrative ski and snowboard season, and how we can stop it being wiped out in just two generations.

Authored by climate experts at the Australian National University (ANU) in collaboration with non-profit Protect Our Winters, it warns that no matter what we do, the average resort season length will decline by 16-18 days by the 2030s.

But the country is now facing a fork in the road. If governments were to take meaningful steps to reduce emissions, the severity of what happens in 2050 could be reduced. And we could actually experience longer ski seasons by 2080.

The report isn't just concerned about the future, it's urging meaningful action to help the industry weather the storm by diversifying.

Stephan Kashkarov, a 23-year-old student, is president of the ANU’s snow sports team. At just 60 60-minute drive from the closest ski fields, Kashkarov said there’s still interest from new students in joining the club, but there’s a question many ask before they sign up.

“They ask us, should I join the club this year? Is this not going to be good enough? And it's always really hard to answer that question,” he told Yahoo News. “It definitely affects our member numbers.”

Two men on the top of an Australian mountain that's covered in snow. We can see a tent behind them. The sun is bright and high in the sky.
Declining snowfall is pushing up the price of accommodation in the middle of the ski season. Source: Stephan Kashkarov

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The students’ observations are not just anecdotal – the Australian snowpack is now at a 2000-year low and the length of the sea season at most alpine resorts has already dropped from 17 - 28 per cent.

Another problem affecting skiing enthusiasts is the rising cost of accommodation. With the outlying dates of the season vanishing, there is rising competition to book dates when there’s more certainty of snow.

“It's hard to predict when the season will actually start, so there's a lot of risk of us actually booking some accommodation and there being no snow,” Kashkarov said.

“Everyone's booking out all of the dates in the middle of the season where they know the conditions will be a bit better.”

Alex Parsons, a backcountry snowboard guide, has been working in the industry for seven years. She’s based at Australia’s highest point, Mount Kosciuszko. The problem of irregular snowfall has got so bad she’s considered abandoning the local industry.

“It makes it really challenging for someone who works as a backcountry guide. You don’t want to work in the rain, and it's unfortunately making a lot of us sort of operational days less viable,” she told Yahoo.

“We're not able to get out for the whole season as much as we'd like. The season is starting later, finishing earlier.”

Because of her strong connection to the Australian mountains, Parsons has continued to work here, even though some of her contemporaries have fled overseas where the snow is more consistent.

“But in 50 years, the snowscape looks extremely different. So if we're not putting in a lot of work to climate pollution, I get quite worried that we might be one of the last generations of backcountry guides,” she said.

A mountain pygmy possum perching on a human hand. The background is blurred out.
Victoria's mountain pygmy possum numbers less than 2000 individuals in the wild. Source: AAP

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Modelling by the researchers suggests if the world significantly reduces emissions, by 2080 the length of the ski season might actually increase.

But there will be pain before there's gain. Even under a low emissions scenario, in 26 years the season could be 28 days shorter. At the mid-range there'll be a loss of 44 days, and if we continue to expand our fossil fuel extraction we lose 55 days.

Looking forward 55 years to 2080 then it’s all over for skiing across the country under a high emissions scenario. And that also means more loss of wildlife for Australia – the country with the worst mammalian extinction record in the world. The mountain pygmy possum and southern corroboree frog will be wiped out along with 31 endemic plant species.

With snowfall continuing to decline on mountains now, ANU researcher and report co-author Ruby Olsson said vulnerable resorts need help diversifying into year-round venues.

“Waiting to take action increases the risk of outcomes — such as resort closure or species extinction — that are difficult or impossible to undo. So this decade is critical,” she said.

Olsson’s message was backed by her co-author Professor Adrienne Nicotra who added that mountain scientists, policy makers, and resort owners needed to work together to create an adaption plan.

"The Australian Alps boast over a million hectares of spectacular environments and are home to unique animals and plants found nowhere else in the world. These iconic landscapes deserve our attention,” she said.

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