By Jonny Amon, Calling the Audible
In Austria, skiing is a birthright. As soon as the first snows begin to fall, the Austrians make their way to their favorite mountains, ready to take in another glorious season of (hopefully) blue skies and fresh powder. Sometimes, if an experienced athlete is looking for a bit of a challenge, they might strap on a different set of skiis with a non-slip strip underneath, and hike up the mountain before joyfully riding back down. This process is grueling, but rewarding once you’ve finally made your way to the top.
Skiing is so much a right of the Austrian citizens that when the government wanted to shut down ski lifts due to COVID, protests forced politicians to reconsider. Ultimately, tourists were kept out, but the skiing went ahead.
Skiing has clearly presented a few challenges to the mountain country, but none might be as big, or existential, as the question of environmental sustainability. As the planet continues to warm, less snow is falling, with the difference being made up by snowmaking machines. Ski areas already use quite a bit of energy, but the uptick in use of these snow blasters will continue to make the energy impact substantial.
Ski resorts in Austria, like those worldwide, face the challenge of ensuring optimal skiing conditions throughout the season. This has led to widespread adoption of snowmaking machines, a technology designed to supplement natural snowfall. Snowmaking, a process heavily reliant on water, poses a significant challenge in a country where water resources are finite. Austrian ski resorts often draw water from nearby rivers and lakes, impacting local ecosystems. The demand for water during peak snowmaking periods can strain these sources, potentially disrupting aquatic habitats and compromising water quality.
The machines must run consistently in order to produce all the snow required for patrons to enjoy. These Snowmakers work by sending microscop ice particles and water out into the air. As they fall, these particles come together and fall as snow. The shape is a bit different – more small pellets instead of customized flakes. Of course, to stay frozen, these droplets can only form in cold weather, ideally just a few degrees above the freezing point.
The amount of water produced by these machines is massive, with around 900,000 liters of water required to create one foot of snow on one acre of land. And obviously, if you’ve been skiing before, you might know that this won’t quite cut it to keep the masses happy. If you imagine all the different skiing resorts, and the many machines required to treat the different areas of the resort, this number begins to look catastrophic.
And the snow machines are just the tip of the iceberg. People often travel far and wide to spend a few days on the slopes. These long haul flights offer a huge impact on the environment, especially as trips are often in groups, with entire families making the journey for just a couple days of action. One can imagine that with climate anxiety continuing to grow, there might be an inverse side effect, with people wanting to ski before they feel that the opportunity might be gone for good. These issues are complex, and will require creative solutions if countries want to continue to offer skiing as a tourism draw in the future.
As Austria’s ski resorts navigate the delicate dance between economic viability and environmental responsibility, the need for sustainable practices becomes clear. Acknowledging the impact of snowmaking machines, water consumption, and ski travel is the first step toward finding a workable balance—one where the thrill of the slopes coexists with the responsibility of safeguarding Austria’s breathtaking Alpine environments so that future generations might also enjoy that special and important birthright.
SportsDay contributor Jonny Amon is a lifelong sports fan from Daytona Beach, Fla. In college at Georgetown University, he wrote about both college and professional sports for the Georgetown Voice, the school newsmagazine. Having recently graduated with a Master’s in sustainability, Jonny is now writing a newsletter about the intersection of sports and climate, looking to highlight the increasing overlap between the two topics.