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How Climate Change Is Redefining Skiing

by Arbiter Writing 4 months ago in Science
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Stricter rules and less snow, yet passionate skiers are adjusting in many remarkable ways.

Photo by Maarten Duineveld | Source: Unsplash

Skiing has become a sport that could quite easily be viewed under the endangered category; a popular hobby stuck between a global pandemic and an ever-hotter planet. Yet, there is a surprising outcome in a particular region of the world that is driven in some fashion by a combination of the two elements.

This upturn, though unexpected, demonstrates the manner by which downhill bombers are fashionably adapting to both crises and how the sport is evolving despite the decline in the snow covering the world.

Uphill skiing, also known as ski touring, is defined as a hybrid approach that combines both downhill and cross country — a style that has been embraced in Europe for many decades. However, in the United States, it has been traditionally observed as an activity for extreme athletes and mountaineers who use their special equipment to trek upwards into the backcountry to search for new territory.

Origins of Ski Touring

Everything changed when the pandemic mandated the shutdown of ski resorts back in 2020. Touring gear sales in the United States saw a massive hike as skiers scrambled for manners to travel uphill without the aid of traditional lifts. Well over 1 million individuals in the United States utilized this form of equipment last year despite the fact that the majority of lifts reopened, and sales rose almost 300 percent between November 2019 and 2020 in accordance with data issued by the NPD Group, a market research firm.

“It’s not linear growth, it’s exponential.” — Utah Avalanche Center Forecaster/Skier Drew Hardesty

Skins, more specifically termed removable traction strips, are used by tour skiers on their setups in addition to free heels and adjustable bindings which allow them the ability to walk. For the purposes of descension, the lock in heels and skins are removed.

This sport first originated in Europe as a means of transportation during the wintertime, with predecessors of modern tour skis appearing near the dawn of the 16 century.

“Uphill skiing is part of the fabric of the culture in Europe. The European market is almost a generation ahead of us in terms of the maturity and sophistication and ski touring in general.” — Senior Manager of Oberalp Group Drew Saunders

Oberalp is a mountain sports company owning both the Pomoca and Dynafit ski brands. Tour skis began to appear in the American economy around the mid-2000s in which videos of descents in wild backcountry regions like the Arctic, Himalayas, and the high Andes started circulating on the web.

According to professional skier Ingrid Backstrom, a woman who has popularized the sport in the United States via self-recorded films of remote slope runs, there was “barely anyone doing it” back then due to the higher difficulty of discovering the equipment as well as its higher cost.

Less Snow, Fewer Trails

Recently, snow has touched down on less soil and it has become more difficult to reach, so skiers like Backstrom have found themselves returning to groomed trails. Their increased visibility in addition to shutdowns on behalf of the pandemic has prompted more people to try using touring gear.

Backstrom continued by stating that more skiers opt instead to travel uphill via managed slopes due to the increased safety from the recent extremes observed in the weather and general climate.

One key reason is explained through the higher volatility of the weather causing unpredictable avalanches. For example, much of the work performed by forecasters is based on computer modeling of prior avalanches and previous observations.

“The old hard drive isn’t necessarily going to be accurate at looking at the avalanches that we’re going to be seeing.” — Drew Hardesty

Hardesty continued by stating that threats of avalanches typically get amplified in the face of wildfires which themselves are getting worse by extreme dryness and heat as part of climate change. Snowpack melting is accentuated through increased layers of dust and ash which weakens the cold stick.

Safety considerations continue to press individuals like Backstrom whose own brother died in a skiing-related accident. Now, she often opts to remain on resort runs even during snow conditions that would allow her to traverse backcountry routes. This, in her eyes, is a straightforward manner by which to exercise, hike, and feel the thrill of skiing back down.

Beyond the limitations presented to backcountry skiing, climate change has also made it far more difficult to traverse terrain that is unmanaged for the majority of the season as snow diminishes across the scene.

An Increased Reliance On Artificial Snow

A staggering number of ski resorts across continental North America have found themselves relying almost completely on snow produced by artificial means.

Normally there would be enough snow to at least go attempt to tour in the backcountry by now, and this year, it’s still almost impossible.” — Black Crows Head of United States Marketing, Tristan Droppert

In the State of Colorado, a location that is quite reputable amongst the ski touring community and its endurance athletes, skiers have had their treks reduced to a significantly limited terrain range. The United States Ski Team’s official training grounds of Copper Mountain only opened 50% of its terrain in the days just prior to Christmas. This report has quadrupled the number of routes available for tour skiing, and yet most trails are doused by artificial snow machines. Nearby in Bluebird Backcountry, a brand new ski area exclusively dedicated to uphill skiing and founded just last year claimed that there simply was not enough snow to open on December 25.

Snow Will Lessen Even More As Time Passes

Between the years 1982 and 2016, the ski season in America shrank by an average of 34 days on an annual basis, and levels of snow dropped on an average of 41% in accordance with a study produced by the Journal of Geophysical Research Letters.

The snow season will continue to shorten according to Xubin Zeng, the University of Arizona’s Director of Climate Dynamics and Hydrometeorology Center. Zeng was also the lead author of the aforementioned study. Such a trend will continue to negatively impact wild ecosystems, farming, and fishing which all rely on a consistent, regularly scheduled cover of snow.

“My best estimate is it will be at least double what we’ve already lost by 2050.” — Xubin Zeng

Given the circumstance, the industry is currently in the midst of deciding whether or not to adapt to changing conditions or fight them with artificial snow and new infrastructure.

The International Olympic Committee and China are currently in preparations for the 2022 Winter Games. Sadly, there is a high probability that they will be forced to use 100% artificial snow. To accomplish this expensive feat, some 49 million gallons of water will be required to establish the conditions necessary for said events in accordance with 2019 estimations. This decision, to many, has been critically observed as unsustainable.

An expanding number of uphill skiers have been implementing tour skis on natural snow to reflect their core values. The powder is simply a miracle of nature that cannot be replicated in any way, according to Backstrom.


About the author

Arbiter Writing

A freelance content agency with over 6 years of experience in the field of professional writing and editing services. We perform research based on topics of clients' choosing and provide SEO-optimized blog posts, articles, and copywriting.

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