Snow Mass Estimates and The Future of Ski Resorts

Climate projections of natural snow conditions are regularly viewed as alarming for the future of ski resorts. By 2050, Arctic summers may be ice-free, the ski season might be cut short by half, and Siberia could become habitable.
Susan Fourtané
Ski resort in Austria iStock 

A report from the European Space Agency's Climate Change Initiative has unveiled the first reliable estimate of snow mass change. This has helped to identify different continental trends. And new data analysis predicts that the Arctic Ocean could become ice-free by 2050.

Human influence on the climate system is evident. Greenhouse gases are the highest they have ever been in history. The implications and consequences of the results can potentially transform life on the planet as we know it. Skiing might even become a vintage sport. All in all, it seems like trying to reduce climate change has never been so urgent. 

Snow mass estimates are now more reliable, for the first time

A report from the European Space Agency's Climate Change Initiative has unveiled the first reliable estimate of snow mass change. This has helped to identify different continental trends. 

As part of ESA's Climate Change Initiative, researchers from the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI) and the Environment and Climate Change Canada have reliably estimated the amount of annual snow mass and changes in snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere between 1980 and 2018. 

The research shows that snow mass has remained the same in Eurasia while it has decreased in North America, but the extent of snow cover has decreased in both regions. The paper, Patterns and Trends of Northern Hemisphere Snow Mass from 1980 to 2018, was published by Nature in May 2020.

The study was the result of a 39-year snow mass climate data record which was based on passive microwave satellite observations combined with ground-based snow depth measurements. 

The research team led by Professor Jouni Pulliainen, the paper's lead author, Research Professor at FMI, and Director at the Arctic Research and Arctic Space Centre of the Finnish Meteorological Institute found little reduction in Northern Hemisphere snow mass over the course of the four decades of satellite observations when looking at the annual maximum amount of snow at the turn of February-March. More reliable estimates identified different continental trends, with snow mass decreased by 46 gigatonnes per decade across North America. 

According to Jouni Pulliainen, in the past, "estimates of global and regional snowfall trends have only been indicative." And "the results show that the amount of rainfall has increased in the northern regions, especially in the northern parts of Asia."  

ESA's Climate Change Initiative is a research and development program that merges and calibrates measurements from multiple satellite missions to generate a global time-series.

Snow as a water source: Why snow mass data is important

The amount of seasonal snow is paramount for the survival of ski resorts around the world. Estimating the amount of seasonal snow is also important for understanding the water cycle and Earth's climate system. Snow is fundamental for the survival of several animals, too. Millions of people rely on snow meltwaters for power, irrigation, and even drinking water.

Warming surface temperatures due to climate change have driven substantial reductions in the snow cover in both its extent and its duration. Snow mass --the amount of water held in the snow pack--has changed over time. However, establishing a clear and coherent picture of its change has proven difficult. 

Having more accurate snow mass information will not only help to assess the availability of freshwater resources and identify flood risk, but will also enable better assessment of the role seasonal snow plays in the climate system.

Snow could also become a source of electricty, if only there were enough snow in the future. In 2019, UCLA researchers engineered a new device that can generate electricity from falling snow called a snow-based triboelectric nanogenerator, or snow TENG. 

How snow conditions and climate observations affect ski resorts

ski resort in lapland, Finland
Ruka ski resort in Lapland, Finland / Source: iStock 

Ski tourism is a major sector of a mountain region's economy, which is under the threat of long-term climate change.

According to Snow Forecast, a source of snow-related news and useful information for ski resorts and ski enthusiasts, Japan is the country that has the most ski resorts: 543, followed by The United States with 447, and Austria with 317.

There are  228 ski resorts in Italy, and Switzerland has 211 from a total of 3,200 ski resorts around the world. Climate projections of natural snow conditions are regularly viewed as alarming for the future of ski resorts.

Since Ruka in Lapland, one of Finland's largest and more modern ski resorts started to close in early May rather than in early June, the ski area with the longest ski season in the world is now Arapahoe Basin in Colorado in The United States. 

The ski season is getting cut short every year due to global warming. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), if the climate continues to change at the current rate, warmer winters will mean even shorter ski seasons, with the average ski season length being cut by half by 2050. 

Global warming could change the planet so dramatically that it could make large parts of Siberia suitable for sustaining human populations. 

Ice-free Arctic summers by 2050

ice-free arctic summers by 2050, ESA
Ice-free Arctic in the winter months appears possible if carbon dioxide continues to be emitted at high levels /Source: Climate Change Initiave, ESA

Analysis by ESA's Climate Change Initiative using global climate models predicts that most of the Arctic Ocean could become ice-free during summer by 2050. The observations suggest that the future of the Arctic's sea-ice cover critically depends on future carbon dioxide emissions.

Data analysis of satellite-based measurements from the 1970s shows a trend of more ice melting away during summers and less new ice forming during winters. In September 2019, the daily Arctic sea-ice extent minimum was the second-lowest in the 40-year satellite record.

The Arctic Ocean is predicted to drop below one million square kilometer --which is an area considered to be ice-free-- in summers before the year 2050. This will have a significant impact on the environment, influencing ocean circulation and hastening the warming of the Arctic.

The sea ice declines, in turn, will trigger the areas of open water to absorb more heat, leading to the increase of ocean temperatures, and this will begin a cycle of warming and melting. 

According to Professor Dirk Notz from the University of Hamburg, Germany "cutting greenhouse gas emissions remains vital to prevent the worst impacts on the Arctic. However, Professor Notz says that even "if we reduce emissions substantially, keeping global warming levels below 2ºC, Arctic sea ice will nevertheless disappear occasionally in summers before 2050." 

Future without snow: A next level global warming 

It is hard to imagine a future without snow, without any chance to ski anymore. Yet, this scenario that today could be part of a science fiction movie, could be the reality of the planet in a distant future.

Through a video project (above), MAZCOR Media shows a thought-provoking perspective of a next level global warming. As sad as it may sound, there is now enough evidence proving that climate change could cause the human civilization to collapse by 2050

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