Ski Lifts

Skiing and the Environment

Holidays are certainly not restricted to the summer months but when it comes to choosing a winter break there are two options which outnumber all others. The first is to simply forget all about the winter weather and jet off to the other side of the world and the other is to embrace the delights of winter by visiting a ski resort.

To those who love the natural environment, little can compare to the exhilaration of stepping off a ski lift, taking in that pure mountain air and looking down on a blanket of virgin snow. Skiing has been popular for many generations and its popularity shows no signs of abating but there is no denying that the sport is showing signs of becoming a victim of climate change with less snow and shorter seasons. The effects of global warming are all around us with changes in weather patterns, alteration of plant boundaries and major catastrophes such as the destruction of coral and receding Arctic ice but nowhere is it more easily observed than in areas once bestowed with an abundance of winter snow. Environmentally conscious visitors may be asking themselves whether the activities of the resort operators or the skiers themselves are actually playing a part in the destruction of some of world’s most beautiful locations.

Whether the skiing industry is regarded as being a victim or a villain depends very much on one’s point of view. In simple terms, the resort operators do shoulder some responsibility but, in all fairness, their activities in general result in similar environmental problems as do those of the rest of the human race so it is probably unfair to point the finger of blame. Many resorts were established over a hundred years ago and although it could be argued that such developments do have an environmental impact, it should not be forgotten that, without the ski industry, many of these small mountain communities would be completely unsustainable. The creation of new slopes, especially in heavily forested areas, often involves considerable tree felling all of which should be carefully controlled to minimise any impact.

Snow Cannons

Energy and Water Hungry Snow Cannon
Energy and Water Hungry Snow Cannon

One of the most contentious issues is the widespread use of snow cannons to produce snow to maintain the pistes and extend the length of the season. These energy-hungry devices were once a rarity confined to applications such as the Winter Olympic Games but now they are found in almost every resort, especially those at lower altitudes where the snow is becoming increasingly unreliable. In addition to their high energy use, they also use huge amounts of water often sourced from water courses at lower altitudes. Although water is not a finite resource, such practices can result in damage to local wildlife habitats. Some operators have chosen to construct reservoirs at higher altitudes mainly for snow-making use and such flooding of large areas can result in damage to fragile mountain ecosystems but the completed development may provide suitable conditions for other local wildlife.

Energy Usage

The nightly grooming of the ski slopes also relies on heavy, potentially polluting machinery and of course ski lifts also use considerable amounts of energy. The day to day operation of the resorts also has an impact but this is probably comparable to any other holiday resort. The use of blazing log fires is often considered to be as important as the snow and this does result in high levels of carbon dioxide and other gases but, provided the fuel is environmentally sourced, the burning of wood is usually regarded as being carbon-neutral.


Zermatt is one of the most famous ski resorts and it has been looking into its environmental impact since 2002. Zermatt has access to an incredible 350km of ski runs in addition to this several Italian ski areas can also be accessed. Zermatt has invested in a number of environmental schemes;

  • a reduction in the environmental impact of construction and an environmental survey so the area can be reverted back to its natural state,
  • an award-winning solar power scheme,
  • the investment in an excellent public transport system – the resort is now car free!
  • a novel way to recycle the steel cables used in their lifts,
  • established several protected areas that are reserved for wildlife and plants.

The resort is at the foot of the Matterhorn and its lifts access the Theodul Glacier which provides 365-day skiing. Despite this, the resort still uses a snow making machine. The ‘snowmaker’ is presented as an environmentally friendly machine as its unique Vacuum Ice Maker (VIM) process is reported as using 80% less power than traditional machines. However there is no independent verification of theis 80% claim and environmentalists would still argue that a resort that has 365 skiing naturally on a galcier should not have a need to use a snow maker at all.

Environmentally Conscious Visitors

Moving on to the influence of the visitors; by making a few small changes to plans, the overall impact can be greatly reduced to the point of becoming negligible. The first consideration is the mode of travel. Flying is the world’s greatest polluter and should be avoided if at all possible. If there is no reasonable alternative, short flights are less damaging than more lengthy ones. When travelling to the chosen resort, public transport is a green alternative to using a hire car. Many resorts are not particularly car-friendly anyway. Some resorts offer free public transport making this an even more attractive proposition.

An environmentally-conscious visitor can certainly check on a resort’s green credentials prior to booking and many operators are pleased to show their environmental policies. The use of biomass heating systems and renewable energy all help as does careful attention not to cause damage to ecologically sensitive areas and wildlife. Even the use of ski lifts can be reduced to some extent by trying out cross-country skiing or even show-shoeing for part of the time.

Cross Country Skiing
Cross Country Skiing

Despite the dwindling snows, it certainly looks as though skiing is here to stay for the foreseeable future, although the long-term prospects for some resorts may be in doubt. With just a little thoughtful pre-planning it is possible to enjoy some fun in the snow with a conscience that remains as clear as the mountain air and the virgin snow. Strangely, those holiday-makers who choose to fly to the sun rarely, if ever, seem to consider the huge amount of damage caused by long-haul flights. A return flight from the UK to Thailand for example results in the emission of over 4 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person and pollution from aircraft actually causes twice the amount of warming than the simple figures suggest. Putting this in perspective, in the UK the average personal carbon footprint is 9.5 tonnes per annum and most expert authorities agree that this should be reduced 1.2 tonnes. This certainly makes a skiing holiday look like a much more responsible option. It seems that white really is the new green!