Are you a skier who cares about the environment? Ski close to home, says new study

snow-making machine on a ski Photo by AleksandarMilutinovic/Shutterstock

Coast to coast, ski hills rely heavily on artificial snow-making to cover patchy ski hills and extend the winter tourism season. But in recent years, ski resorts have become increasingly reliant on man-made snow as they face mild winter temperatures, heavy rainfall, and a lack of snow. 

The practice has been used by the Canadian ski industry since its invention in 1952, and it’s still a widespread technique. A recent 2023 study found that of  237 total ski areas in Canada, more than half routinely make artificial snow, typically starting in December and running until the end of March. What isn’t as known is the environmental toll of snow-making, which requires heavy energy and water usage.

Last May, researchers at the University of Waterloo released the first-ever national study to assess the environmental impact of making artificial snow. They found that currently, the energy used to make artificial snow in Canada is equal to the annual energy consumption of nearly 43,000 homes, and the water consumption could fill up more than 17,300 Olympic-sized swimming pools. 

So just how bad is snow-making for the environment? It depends on where you ski. “Snow-making does use a lot of energy—there’s nobody disputing that,” says Daniel Scott, co-author of the study, and a professor in the geography and environmental management department at Waterloo. “But it comes down to is what the source of that energy is. Snow-making in a Quebec context, for instance, can be very sustainable, and actually helps reduce emissions.”

That’s because Quebec’s electricity is sourced primarily from renewable sources—94 per cent hydro power and five per cent wind power. “If you’re going skiing in Quebec or even Ontario, or someplace with a largely decarbonized grid, you can have a low-carbon to no-carbon holiday,” he says. “Snow-making doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. It can actually be a good thing.” 

For instance, if a ski resort did not make artificial snow and the runs were bare, a skier might instead travel to snow-covered hills elsewhere. “They might decide to drive to Vermont, or get on a plane and fly to Whistler, or to Banff,” Scott says. “The minute they do that, their carbon footprint is hundreds of times higher because of the carbon footprint associated with flying.” 

In that way, energy-intensive, snow-making can actually be a way to curb overall emissions of a long-distance ski trip. “It sounds counterintuitive, but the more we’re able to keep skiers closer to home, the better,” he says. 

However, the environmental impact of man-made snow varies widely across Canada. In Alberta and some eastern provinces, snow machines are largely powered by fossil fuel sources, so the energy output is much higher. 

Alberta ski hills contribute a whopping 96 per cent of all snow-making emissions nationally, despite producing only 39 per cent of machine-made snow. That’s because the province’s electricity grid is primarily fossil-fuel based. (Snow-making in Alberta alone is equal to the annual emissions of more than 8,800 Canadians.) 

The water source is another important consideration, Scott says. “There has been a lot of criticism of snow-making, because it uses a lot of water. But 80 to 90 per cent of that water is put on the hill for a few months, and then it melts back down into the same watershed,” he says. “So it’s not a consumptive use, like agriculture or even irrigating a golf course.”

Man-made snow is helping ski resorts stay afloat, so the practice is unlikely to stop anytime soon. Snow-making in Canada will actually increase between 55 and 97 per cent over the next 25 years, as climate change causes even warmer temperatures and less snowfall. Ontario’s current 117-day ski season is estimated to fall to a mere 47 days by 2050 under these conditions. 

There is a silver lining though: British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Alberta all have stated policies to decarbonize their electricity grid by 2050, so future carbon emissions associated with snow-making are expected to fall dramatically. 

And although some ski resorts are hesitant to talk about the environmental impact of snow-making, Scott says operators could explain to patrons that skiing locally can be a more sustainable choice compared to seeking faraway hills. “I think there’s actually a good news story for some of them to tell,” Scott says. 

The bottom line? “Snow-making can be quite sustainable,” says Scott. “Each skier should understand where [their hill] is on that spectrum.” 

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