Changing weather patterns are reconfiguring ski racing in gritty, noticeable ways, drawing stark contrasts to how things were a decade ago.
From shrinking glaciers and inadequate snow cover to tempestuous storms and too much of the white stuff, racers on the World Cup circuit are having to adapt in myriad ways.
Just ask Federica Brignone, Italian Olympic bronze medalist in giant slalom at PyeongChang, and she’ll point to her suitcase as evidence of how she thinks climate change is changing skiing.
“I go with a big bag,” said the 28-year-old of how she packs a wide variety of clothing to be prepared for the increasingly fluctuating weather.
‘It’s sad…that’s our planet’
Today the planet is 1 degree Celsius warmer than it was before the start of the industrial revolutions in the early nineteenth century, and according to UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, could be 1.5 C warmer by 2030.
Global warming is impacting winter sports in two key areas — shrinking the season and greater variability in weather conditions, according to CNN’s senior meteorologist Brandon Miller.
“Climate change isn’t just drier and warmer,” he says. “Inconsistent weather patterns arising from changes in the earth’s atmosphere can lead to prolonged periods of bitter cold and snow.
“Heavy snow can result as warmer air can hold more moisture which produces more snow if conditions are cold enough. But on the whole, these bouts of cold and heavy snow will be fewer and farther between as the climate warms.”
Brignone is just one winter sports athlete who has noticed more erratic weather patterns since she began racing on the World Cup circuit in 2007.
“It’s warmer in the summer, but the past few years, I’ve never been so cold,” said Brignone. “There were times last year in Pyeongchang and in Killington [this year] where it was -25 C. The climate is changing, because in one or two days it will go from -25 C to 5 C. That’s crazy.”
The rapid deterioration of the glaciers that sustain early season training is forcing today’s coaches and racers to reassess how they prepare for the annual circuit.
“I’ve been going to glaciers for 20 years to train,” said veteran World Cup racer Resi Stiegler. “You wouldn’t have even thought it was warm out 10 years ago. Now you’re [skiing] in T-shirts.”
READ: Shiffrin seals stellar season with 60th World Cup win
Even the tallest peak in the Alps isn’t immune to warming temperatures. The Mer de Glace glacier, which descends from Mont Blanc near Chamonix, France, is melting at roughly 40 meters (130 feet) a year.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen is the glaciers are melting at an incredible rate,” American speed queen Lindsey Vonn told CNN’s Alpine Edge.
“The glaciers I went to when I was a kid don’t look anything remotely like they used to. You go up to Zermatt or Saas Fee or Hintertux or Soelden, they’ve got very little of the glacial ice they used to have.
“It’s sad, not just for the sport but that’s our planet. It really irritates me and frustrates me that people don’t acknowledge global warming exists.”
READ: ‘Hardest decision:’ Ski ace Marcel Hirscher mulls retirement
It’s not only skiing stars that are worried.
At the historic Hahnenkamm race weekend in Kitzbuhel this season, long-time ski racing fan, movie star, politician and environmental activist Arnold Schwarzenegger called out President Trump for his stance on climate change, saying he was making a “big mistake” by pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change by 2020.
In February, the head of the International Ski Federation, Gian-Franco Kasper, was forced to issue an apology after referring to “so-called” climate change in an interview with Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger.
The 75-year-old Swiss, asked to elaborate on the subject, said: “There is no proof for it. We have snow, sometimes even a lot of it. I was in Pyeongchang for the Olympiad. We had -35 Celsius. Everybody who came up to me shivering I greeted with, ‘Welcome to global warming’.”
He later said his comments had been “misunderstood.”
READ: Kitzbuhel downhill: For sheer rock ‘n’ roll racing, this is The One
READ: Why Kitzbuhel races offer skiing’s biggest party
The Alps experienced one of its snowiest winters in recent years in 2017-2018, while this season there was unprecedented snowfall in some regions and a dearth in others. For World Cup organizers, winter weather is an occupational hazard — storms are needed for snow, but too much, or too little, and races have to be rescheduled or canceled.
The men’s season opener in Solden, Austria in October was canceled because of high winds and excessive snowfalls, while December’s women’s World Cup events at Val d’Isère were rescheduled elsewhere because of a lack of snow and warm temperatures.
In January, huge snowfalls across much of the northern Alps forced the cancellation not only of World Cup races in St. Anton, Austria, but the whole town being closed off for avalanche safety reasons. “Exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures,” said a statement on the St. Anton website.
“There are locations, mainly in Austria and southern Bavaria, where we haven’t seen this level of snowfall ever before, or at least not to that extreme,” said Florian Pappenberger, the director of forecasts at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.
Races in Bansko, Bulgaria, Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany and 2014 Winter Olympics venue Rhosa Khutor in Russia were also called off because of heavy snow, despite the best efforts of organizers to stage the events.
“Sometimes we have to admit that nature is just stronger,” said Atle Skaardal, race director for the women’s World Cup circuit, in Rhosa Khutor.
READ: Extreme weather brings fatal avalanches and cuts off Alpine resorts
‘The seasons have moved’
In an effort to combat nature’s unpredictable rhythms, ski resorts have long used artificial snowmaking to create a decent base at the start of the season and to keep supplies topped up to the end.
The increasingly sophisticated snowmaking systems are built primarily for tourism purposes but have become critical lifelines for FIS World Cup events.
At Killington, Vermont, a late November host of women’s World Cup races, a noticeable shift in seasons is recalibrating how the snowmaking team approaches its preparations.
“The seasons have actually moved,” said Jeff Temple, director of mountain operations. “It’s harder to get those colder temps in November, and it seems like we’ve extended the season more.”
Killington examined decades’ worth of temperature and snowfall data to model and map out what was needed to guarantee a decent piste and practice slope for the World Cup. The magic number: 130 hours of snowmaking, or five-days’ worth of snow production.
“We call it a no regrets concept,” he said. “We have to take advantage of every hour we can get in October and November.”
If anything, the changing climate has helped level the field between those who rely on natural snow and those who don’t, says Mike Solimano, president and general manager of Killington.
“For a long time, we’ve been less dependent on natural snow than everybody else,” he said. “We’ve had to invest a lot more in snowmaking in the last 25 years than everyone out West.”
Preference for man-made snow
Europe’s mega-resorts are also heavily dependent on snowmaking in order sustain their ski tourism industry while also enabling them to continue to host the brand-enhancing World Cup circus.
Courchevel in the French Alps unveiled 115 new snow cannons for the 2018-19 season — making 700 in total across the whole of the interconnected Three Valleys region — and has upgraded its snowmaking technology to higher-performing, more efficient systems that can blow snow in warmer temperatures.
“Normally, snow guns run at -4 C (24.8F), but now we have ones that can produce in -2 C weather,” said Bruno Tuaire of the resort’s Club des Sports, which organizes the regular Women’s World Cup events in December.
Courchevel also tried the radical technique of snow farming this year, conserving about 700,000m3 of snow under tarpaulins over the summer. Nearly 100,000m3 of it was left to start the 2018-19 season.
However, one of the biggest ironies is that many of the ski racers actually prefer competing on artificial snow.
“Uniquely, for the World Cup trail, we need nearly all man-made snow,” Tuaire said. “There’s never more than 50% of natural snow in the mix.”
For Brignone, racing on man-made snow translates into faster conditions.
“The man-made snow is a little more sticky. It’s so much more aggressive. You say, ‘ok, the skis are going [downhill] so you go.'”
Despite the weather, Mikaela Shiffrin and Marcel Hirscher shattered World Cup records aplenty this season to showcase the sport in rude health.
All eyes are on a bright future.