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In this World Cup ski season, climate change is winning

Austria's Patrick Feurstein skis during the first run of the men's giant slalom last month in Soelden, Austria. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)
9 min

The women’s World Cup Alpine ski season begins this weekend in Levi, Finland, where Mikaela Shiffrin, Petra Vlhova and an international field of stars will run two slalom races in temperatures that, finally and mercifully, will peak in the teens. This event comes five weeks after the first scheduled competition of the season was wiped out because rain softened the course on a glacier in Soelden, Austria, to the point that it became unsafe to ski.

The only men’s Alpine race of the season thus far was contested the following day in Soelden — without rain but with temperatures in the mid-40s and a deteriorating surface. Since then, two men’s and women’s downhill races — in the shadow of Switzerland’s Matterhorn, with a finish line across the border in Italy — have been canceled because there wasn’t enough snow on the bottom portion of the track. Officials from the International Ski Federation (FIS) scratched a pair of parallel slalom races in Austria because cold temperatures arrived too late to provide a proper course.

The tally: Of eight scheduled races to date, one has been held. The women’s races this weekend will occur more than 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle — which is becoming one of the only fail-safe ways to stage an outdoor winter sports competition. Organizers are desperate to get the season going. Climate change is winning.

“I know a lot of the athletes weren’t super excited about the lengths they were going to to make some of these races happen,” said Steven Nyman, a veteran American downhiller. “It just seems backwards for us to force something to happen, yet it’s in a time where we’re seeing these changes and seeing the issues on Earth that we need to respect.”

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The fact that the world is warming isn’t breaking news, and the cancellation of ski races is hardly a tragedy. But increasingly, athletes and advocates who participate in winter sports are using the challenges they experience in training and competing to bring attention to a global issue. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that nine of the 10 warmest years in the planet’s history fell between 2013 and 2021. Winters are shorter. Snowfall is less consistent. Melting comes earlier.

“We know that for certain,” said McKenzie Skiles, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Utah whose research interests include the effects of climate change on mountain snow. “These aren’t changes that we’re waiting to manifest in the future. These are changes that we’re living through right now. It doesn’t mean that we’re never going to have another early-season snowfall event. It just means that those are going to be fewer and farther between.

“The snow is coming later. It’s becoming more variable. And the consistency of snow is really, these days, only at the highest elevations.”

For winter sports, that has a wide swath of ramifications. It means starting a ski season in October will become a less reliable proposition — even on a glacier. It means, according to a study released this year, that of the 22 cities that have hosted Winter Olympics, only one would remain a viable host by the end of this century unless global emissions of greenhouse gases are reduced dramatically. It means that a winter sports and tourism industry that, in good seasons, can generate $20 billion domestically is increasingly fragile.

“We have a later onset of snowfall, and then variable temperatures in the middle of the season,” said Mario Molina, executive director of Protect Our Winters, an advocacy group that includes athletes, scientists and businesspeople who push for policies that would help slow climate change. “A whole lot of stuff is happening to snowpack.”

For athletes whose seasons are struggling to start, the evidence can feel incremental and dramatic. The U.S. cross-country team frequently has held a preseason camp in northern Finland because the conditions were deemed reliable early in the season.

“The last time we were there, it was melting out,” said Jessie Diggins, a three-time Olympic medalist in cross-country skiing. “We jogged home from the man-made loop — on the Arctic Circle, in late November — past green moss and grass and flowers that were blooming.

“That was such a striking visual to me. Like, this feels so wrong. We’re way up there, and here we were skiing through puddles on man-made snow, dodging mud and rocks that were creeping up through the snow that they have. It was crazy.”

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Nyman and many of the American Alpine athletes travel most years to Portillo, Chile, for preseason training, usually in September. There, the normal winter season runs from June to October. The team’s hotel overlooks a lake, Laguna del Inca. For years, it invariably would be frozen solid.

“And it just stopped freezing the past five or six years,” Nyman said. “They used to ski across it. They used to be a ton of water in it, and now it’s low and not frozen.

“It’s not just for us. I talk to the people there about it, and it’s not frozen for anyone all season long.”

On Nov. 12, the temperature in central Vermont reached into the 70s, and the skies soaked the Green Mountains with rain. The slopes at Killington Resort, which had been blown with man-made snow twice in October, turned brown again. Killington is scheduled to host a women’s World Cup giant slalom Nov. 26 and a slalom the following day.

“Publicly, I was very calm,” said Herwig Demschar, a veteran ski coach and industry executive who serves as the chairman of Killington’s local organizing committee. “But my fingernails are a bit shorter.”

Killington has hosted these races since 2016. In preparation for the inaugural event, Demschar pored over 40 years of weather and snow data that showed, in a given year in late November, there would be an 80 percent chance Killington would be able to stage such a competition. As the only domestic women’s stop on the World Cup circuit, the events are crucial for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. Before the pandemic, they drew more than 35,000 people over the course of three days to watch and celebrate the sport. Shiffrin, the American star, has won all five slalom races contested there — a huge publicity boost for the U.S. team on home snow.

But just two weeks before this year’s races, the schedule in Europe was already in turmoil. When the men’s downhill races on a new course that began in Zermatt, Switzerland and ended in Cervinia, Italy, were canceled, officials said they had to consider pushing the races to later on the calendar in the seasons ahead.

“For the future, we absolutely need to review the dates because we need to have more guarantee,” Markus Waldner, the chief race director of the men’s World Cup circuit, told reporters then. “We have to observe the nature. We have this climate change. We had a very extremely warm summer, extremely warm autumn also. These are signals, and we need to respect this.”

To stage the races at Killington, the course must be covered with at least two to three feet of snow, preferably between three and four. By this past Sunday, temperatures dropped below freezing, and staff began blowing the slopes with man-made snow. By Wednesday, when FIS officials had to confirm the races could be staged safely, Demschar said about 40 percent of the necessary snow was on the course. The forecast is “significantly cold all the way to race weekend,” Demschar said. So FIS officials gave the thumbs-up.

“You always look at it and you go: ‘Oh, my God. Are we going to be able to do this?’ ” Demschar said. “Would there be a more relaxed time to do this race, go into December or January? Absolutely. But on the other hand, it’s a really cool time, Thanksgiving weekend, to do an event like this.”

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Athletes such as Diggins and Nyman are working with Protect Our Winters to bring hope that such early-season events don’t become dinosaurs. But they want to do more than buy reusable water bottles and recycle their cans. Diggins, who considers skiers “canaries in the coal mines” because they see the effects of a warming planet up close, has lobbied Congress to act on climate change.

“We’re in a society where the people who stand the most to gain from us not transitioning away from fossil fuels have very much made it about personal accountability and nothing else,” Diggins said. “We recognize that’s not how we change things. We need huge policy changes. It’s like focusing on a tap that’s leaking when there’s a waterfall down the street.”

Diggins starts her cross-country season Thanksgiving weekend in Ruka, Finland, where she will begin defense of her World Cup overall title. Nyman and the men’s Alpine circuit travel to Lake Louise, Canada, that same week. Each will be focused on the competition. But they’re also very much focused on the future. Diggins, 31, said it’s “really scary” that her grandkids might not be able to sled or build a snowman. Nyman, 40, has two daughters, ages 5 and 2.

“I want my kids to have the opportunity to ski, to experience the snow, experience the joy of gliding down the hill, the freedom of it,” Nyman said. “But we’ve got to keep our eyes open and be aware.

“When this is in our face and we talk about it yet they’re blowing snow on a glacier to make a ski track in a time of year that’s still questionable, that’s on the brink? It’s tough.”