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Climate change is decimating natural snow and, in turn, changing the habitats near ski resorts.
Words by Jennifer Billock
In 2007, birds that live near ski slopes got a bit of a publicity boost. A study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology had found that along ski runs, diversity of bird species had plummeted, and news outlets took notice. Trampling snow, the noise from snow cannons and obstructive ski resort equipment were all to blame, at least in part. For the black grouse — large game birds that live in the Alps — stress levels were higher the closer their habitat was to a ski run, researchers found.
The study was the “first investigation of the direct effects of skiing on wild species,” the Guardian reported at the time — and it was the first indication that wildlife populations around ski resorts could be at risk from this common winter sport, and everything it entails, including skiers, lifts and artificial snow. It turns out that the use of artificial snow can harm wildlife — potentially blanketing slopes with chemicals and introducing out-of-season ice — both of which can alter habitats.
Since then, the rising threat of climate change has made things worse. If the global temperature were to rise by another two degrees, 53 percent of European ski resorts will face a potentially business-destroying loss of natural snow cover for their ski runs. And it’s a problem all over the world — not just in Europe. As a result, most ski resorts have installed artificial snow cannons to blanket their hills.
A full 90 percent of Italy’s ski slopes are now covered by machines, to make up for the snow they’re just no longer getting. It’s common in the sports world, as well, where both the 2010 and 2022 Olympics used artificial snow to blanket winter sports arenas. And if we hit a four-degree rise in global temperatures? That 53 percent rises to 98 — an almost complete loss of natural snow.
So what does that mean, not just for birds but for all wildlife in ski zones? Nothing too great, it turns out. Artificial snow is typically made mostly of water but some chemicals as well, like polymers, hydrogels and bacterias. As the fake snow melts, the chemicals used to make it seep into the ground, making their way into the food supply for local critters.
“There are many different chemical compounds that are used in the making of artificial snow, and for many of these, we know very little about their potential negative effect on the environment,” says Tommy Wylde, owner of Floofmania, a website about North American wildlife. “Scientists argue that some of these products may contain fungicidal proteins, which may disturb the local ecology on a microscopic level which, in turn, can spread to the rest of the biosphere.”
Think of it like eating an apple that’s been covered in a chemical you weren’t expecting to ingest, and consider how that may affect your body. Then, extrapolate it to the size of a small animal. It’s not great.
One of the main materials used to make fake snow is a chemical called sodium polyacrylate. That chemical is essentially little flakes of a plastic-like substance that are able to store more water, leading to more snow production. And though it’s non-toxic for humans, it’s potentially a different story for wildlife and vegetation. It doesn’t biodegrade, at least not for decades, which makes it “similar to throwing plastic directly into the woods.”
There are other impacts too. Human-made snow takes a long time to melt, much longer than natural snow. A 2022 study by the Department of Environment Studies and Sustainability at Stockton University found that because it’s denser than natural snow, artificial snow can delay the melting process by two to four weeks. That alters the timeline of plant growth — which means the wildlife that relies on those plants for food are unable to eat.
Wylde calls it an “artificial prolongation of winter.”
“For some animals, it’s simply a question of moving away, which may mean fewer animals in the surrounding areas,” he says. “But for others, there’d be no way to simply migrate and survive in other places, and the new situation would mean that the animal would simply become fragile, and subsequently easy prey for predators.”
It’s important to note that there is a difference between artificial snow and man-made snow, like the kind used at Breckenridge’s ski resorts. While artificial snow may have those chemicals, man-made snow is all water, cooled down and thrown out of snow cannons. The team at Breckenridge says it’s exactly the same as regular snow. And that’s a great thing for native plants and animals who rely on their environment to survive around ski runs.
But man-made snow can also cause problems of its own. The infrastructure to pump it all onto the slopes still needs to be installed, interfering with wildlife habitats — and although no chemicals are leaching into the ground, the lifecycle of local plants might be affected. At Sunday River ski resort in Maine, for example, they have more than 2,000 snow guns with 80 miles of pipe and 30 miles of hose. That’s a lot of potential habitat.
Dr. Christian Rixen, a Switzerland-based scientist studying mountain ecosystems, has found that the shift in plant species has happened at a perhaps surprising, “relatively rapid” pace. “We have plant species that are adapted to natural habitats with very little snow,” Rixen says, who are now faced with a lot of snow, as well as “an increase of those species that can deal with a long snow cover on these ski runs where snow was produced.”
Ultimately, that means local animals will need to adapt as well, whether it’s acquiring a taste for a new food, or as Wylde suggested, trying to move to a more hospitable habitat. Yet vegetation change isn’t always a bad thing, says Rixen. If there’s only been a thin snow cover and a ski resort tries to pack that down into a usable ski run, the heavy machinery might damage the plants underneath. If the resort were to throw more snow on top first — whether artificial or not — the strategy could actually better protect the vegetation.
“When you have an additional half meter or more on that ski run, then that can be a bit of protection,” he says. “We also saw that [with] an increase in shrubby, woody species. So, Alpine rose, blueberries that are very common here in the Alps, similar to the species that you have in the U.S.”
Still, artificial snow does affect the wildlife who call these ski areas home. The cannons used to throw the snow out onto the mountain can cause issues, disturbing the sleep patterns of local wildlife, especially when the cannons run at night. The infrastructure itself can be a danger, as birds face higher mortality rates from flying into the equipment.
At least at Breckenridge, the resort has made some changes to better support the wildlife population. In addition to using man-made, chemical-free snow, there’s now a wildlife highway right by the main ski resort. It was originally built to keep migrating animals safe from cars, but its proximity to the slopes makes it an extra avenue for both animals and vegetation to thrive during the winter.
One of the employees at the Breckenridge resort shared with me that all sorts of animals — think moose, bear, deer and more — now use the wildlife highway year-round. They’re leading the charge in a shift that needs to happen at ski resorts, one many resorts don’t think about, where we consider less about how to make it amenable to skiers and more about keeping the wildlife in the area safe.
Rixen notes that in Switzerland, some new resorts are taking wildlife into consideration when plotting how they use the landscape. “It’s fairly straightforward,” he says. Any plants or vegetation removed to make way for a ski run are planted again nearby right away. “Some of these plants may be a thousand years old. [It’s really important] that you don’t lose them, that the roots don’t dry out, that you plant them in sort of the same place as soon as possible.” Then, any vegetation gaps are filled in with fertilizer or seeds from the local area.
With these tricks, says Rixen, you can at least mitigate the impacts you have, and that’s something.
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