New Zealand snow areas confident they will adapt to any risks from climate change

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New climate modelling shows seasonal snow levels at New Zealand ski areas will be reduced by the effects of climate change in the coming years, but the good news is the loss may actually be less than originally anticipated and we should be able to continue to make snow, even under a more extreme climate scenario.

This is the first time a quantitative assessment of the potential impact of climate change on snow levels has been done in New Zealand.

Using global climate trend data, taken from the climate models used for the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, NIWA scientists created three different emissions scenarios. These were then fed into a model specifically designed for New Zealand conditions, to show how the different scenarios could impact on snow levels for the 2040s (2030-2049) and the 2090s (2080-2099). Results were provided both for New Zealand as a whole and for individual ski areas.

The results show:

Nationally:

  • On average, at nearly all elevation levels, there will be a gradual decrease in snow (including duration, and mean maximum snow accumulation) as the century progresses.
  • The decrease in snow is more marked at elevations below 1000 metres but is evident at all but the highest elevations.

For individual ski areas (depending on their location and elevation):

  • Under a mid-range climate change scenario, by 2040 there will be on average between 93% and 79% of the current maximum snow depths at the upper elevation sites, and by 2090 this, on average, will be further reduced, to approximately 80% to 54% of the current maximum snow depths.
  • Under a warmer climate change scenario, by 2040 there will be on average between 92% and 72% of the current maximum snow depths at the upper elevation sites, and by 2090 this, on average, will be further reduced, to approximately 79% to 35% of the current maximum snow depths
  • At lower elevations the decreases are even more pronounced.
  • Under a mid-range climate change scenario, by 2040 there will be on average between 91% and 65% of the current maximum snow depths at the lower elevation sites, and by 2090 this, on average, will be further reduced, to approximately 68% to 20% of the current maximum snow depths.
  • Under a warmer climate change scenario, by 2040 there will be on average between 83% and 45% of the current maximum snow depths at the lower elevation sites, and by 2090 this, on average, will be further reduced, to approximately 48% to 9% of the current maximum snow depths.

NIWA snow and ice scientist Dr Jordy Hendrikx says the new modelling confirms results from similar international studies.

“From these results we expect to see a gradual change in snow levels but fortunately for New Zealand, we are unlikely to see the more extreme impacts predicted in Europe and Australia. Our modelling shows that the loss may actually be less than originally anticipated and we should be able to continue to make snow, even under a more extreme climate scenario, right out to the 2090s. What’s really exciting about this work is that we can now give New Zealand ski areas detailed, localised information they can use to better undertake long term planning for the future changes to natural snow levels.”

Ski Areas Association of New Zealand executive director Miles Davison says the new modelling gives the industry useful information about how ski areas may need to be operated in the future.

“We are quite optimistic about these results. The sort of average percentage change predicted by 2040 under a mid-range scenario is actually much less than the current inter-annual variability in natural snow fall. We manage to deal with this annual variability now so we expect to comfortably deal with the average years of the 2040’s with snow making systems which have greater capacity, and from expected improvements in snow making technology which will provide for more efficient conversion of water to snow.”

“It’s obvious that if these predictions materialise we are going to need to make greater use of snowmaking technology in the coming years but we fully expect the necessary resources, the equipment and the ever improving technology that is used will ensure the forecast reductions in natural snowfall can be compensated for with snowmaking systems. That’s great news for the New Zealand skiing and snowboarding industry. Many other countries around the world are at far greater risk of their areas having to close, especially at lower elevations.”

“Most New Zealand ski areas already have snowmaking systems installed and this new information will really help us to understand and plan for the future changes which may be needed at different areas, based on their location and elevation.”

The modelling also looked at how many snowguns may be needed in the future to offset the loss in natural snow depth.

The new research is part of a project funded by the Ski Areas Association of New Zealand and the Foundation of Science, Research and Technology (FRST). Other projects, funded by FRST, are also looking at the impacts of climate change on water resources, flooding, glaciers and sea level rise.

 
Miles Davison
Executive Director
Ski Areas Association of New Zealand
Wellington

Skiing in Canterbury, New Zealand. (Photo: Karl Birkeland)