Snow in Science, Culture, and Climate

Snow-based Recreation

Groomed cross-country ski trail
A freshly groomed ski trail for skating and classic skiing techniques. Photo by Tiia Monto on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Snow has the power to transform the landscape into a magical, natural playground. Every fall, millions of winter recreation enthusiasts around the world eagerly anticipate the first snow of the season and the myriad recreational opportunities that this sparkly, white carpet of tiny ice crystals provides. For some, snow-based outdoor activities are enjoyable, active pastimes, and for others, they are serious competitive sports that require dedicated training. For all, they are fun!

Types of snow-based recreation

Winter recreation includes those that are dependent on ice, such as ice skating and ice fishing, and many that require snow. Snow-based recreation includes snowshoeing, snowmobiling, dog mushing, snowboarding, fat-tire biking, and a wide variety of different skiing styles and techniques, from traditional downhill to cross-country touring skiing, biathlon to ski-joring, classic Nordic (cross-country) to skate skiing, telemark to randonee, and ski and snowboard freestyle events.

Some people travel to commercial resorts or maintained trail systems at designated recreation areas, while others take to the backcountry, where they can blaze their own paths in less-visited areas. Some activities, notably resort-based skiing and snowmobiling, require a substantial financial investment, while others, such as snowshoeing, require only a relatively inexpensive pair of snow shoes and access to a snow-covered public land area. Some activities entail a significant learning curve and specialized skills, while others, such as snowshoeing and fat-tire biking, require little more than the ability to walk or ride a bicycle.

Economic impacts of snow-based recreation

Ski resort - buildings and parking lots in front of ski slopes under blue sky
Ski resorts like Winter Park in Colorado generate billions of dollars in snow recreation and related industries every year. Photo by Murray Foubister on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Winter recreation is also a multi-billion dollar industry and creates hundreds of thousands of jobs in the U.S. In addition to revenue directly linked to recreational snow tourism, such as resort fees and equipment rental and purchases, snow-based recreation supports businesses in the hospitality, service, and transportation industries, including local small businesses such as restaurants, gas stations, and hotels (Burakowski and Magnusson, 2012; Hagenstad et al., 2018).

Changing climate has implications for opportunities to participate in winter recreation and the economic benefits that the winter recreation industry creates. Recently, warmer years have resulted in shorter ski seasons at some resorts, with snow melting earlier in the spring, and climate projections suggest that shorter ski seasons, especially at lower-elevation and and resorts near the coast, could become the norm in the continental U.S. before the end of this century (Burakowski and Magnusson, 2012; Hagenstad et al., 2018; Wobus et al., 2017). Because participation in snow sports, including resort-based skiing, have been shown to decrease during years with warmer temperatures and less snow (Burakowski and Magnusson, 2012; Hagenstad et al., 2018), the winter sports industry and associated economies will likely struggle to remain economically viable in some locations. Climate models show that the severity and rate of of temperature and precipitation effects on snow-based recreation will depend on the amount of carbon emitted by human activities now and in the future (Burakowski and Magnusson, 2012; Hagenstad et al., 2018; Wobus et al. 2017).

snowmaking cannon at ski resort at night
In 2010, approximately 90% of ski resorts used artificial snowmaking to supplement natural snow. Snowmaking accounts for up to 50% of a resort’s energy costs. Photo by Meanmachine.mdp on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Nearly 90% of ski resorts in the U.S. use artificial snow-making to extend the length of the skiable season or enhance the quality of ski conditions by supplementing the base of natural snow. Snow-making accounts for 50% of total operational energy costs at some ski areas, and the need to increase artificial snow-making could create serious financial challenges (Burakowski & Magnusson, 2012). Artificial snow-making requires cold conditions (Wobus et al. 2017), so warmer temperatures will also present a technical challenge to ski area operations.

Snow-based recreation in a changing climate

Person wearing snowshoes makes tracks in fresh snow
Photo from Federal Highway Administration on Wkimedia Commons (Public domain)

Some players in the winter recreation industry have taken steps to reduce their impact on the planet through technological innovations, operating procedures and facilities, and human behavior. Snowmobiles on the market today include models that generate less pollution than the older models. Some ski resorts have instituted sustainability programs that include reduction in waste (e.g. by installing refillable water bottle stations and recycling bins), increasing energy efficiency and use of renewable energy sources, and encouraging use of public transportation (Hagenstad et al. 2018; National Ski Areas Association, 2020).

Participating in outdoor winter recreation affords people with a diversity of positive experiences, including opportunities for adventure, exhilaration, solitude, exercise, testing one’s limits, exploration, spending time with family and friends, escape from the stresses of everyday life, learning new skills, artistic inspiration, and more. Participating in winter recreation is also an opportunity to observe, appreciate, and connect with the wonder, mystery, and beauty natural world. Through the choices we make and the behaviors that we exhibit on the slopes and trails and during our everyday activities, people have the opportunity to reduce the impacts of climate change and ensure that we will be able to continue to enjoy nature’s snowy playground for years to come.