Stuart Browning, Climate Scientist with Macquarie University and Jindabyne resident, believes there’s a surprising opportunity for alpine areas and their surrounding towns arising with climate change.
The ski fields and resorts have been investing heavily to ensure they weather the affects, but he believes towns like those surrounding Selwyn should double down on building all-year mountain tourism.
“There’s generally a perception that there’s been a decline in snowfall in the Alps but it’s really only in the springtime that we’ve seen a significant change,” he said.
“If you look at overseas ski resorts like those in the United States, they’ve been a lot more dramatically effected by climate change than we have, but they have this year-round mountain recreation culture.
“They’re often busier in summertime than they are in winter, and it’s really only in the past few years that people in Australia are starting to wake up to that. Jindabyne is absolutely booming in the summer; you’ve got people up here looking at the lake, mountain biking, walking the trails… you can get 3000 people a day up on top of Kosciusko now, whereas ten years ago that was unheard of.
“We have this real beach culture in Australia; as soon as it gets warm everyone heads to the beach, but there’s so much potential for summer mountain tourism as well.”
He doesn’t want to be too alarmist, and he’s not saying there’s any immediate threat to the snowfields from climate change. More research needs to be done, and snowmaking machines, like those going strong at Selwyn, are effective in the right conditions.
“Basically, snow making is great so long as it’s not too warm or wet,” he said.
“There’s nothing snow making can do if it comes and rains on the mountains; if its too warm and precipitous snow making is no help. But, take this year; in the lead up to the opening we didn’t get much snow but we got a lot of clear skies and cold nights so they were able to open without having too much natural snow.”
And would the frequency of those conditions be affected by climate change?
“No, because those cold overnight temperatures are almost independent of what climate change will do.
“We’re seeing a shorter season, and we’re getting earlier spring melt than we used to.
“People will say remember back in the fifties there were huge snow falls at Cooma all the time, but that does vary naturally so we can’t necessarily say that’s because of climate change.
“There is that perception though, so investing in summer tourism as well as things like snow making makes sense.”
According to the Australian Alps website, climate change has, although not always directly or singularly, helped to cause: plants and animals that normally don’t belong in the Alps; less snow, or fewer snow covered days over winter; less rainfall, reducing flows in alpine streams and further downstream; and evidence of large-scale bushfires; declines in threatened alpine fauna species numbers; increases in weeds and introduced animals; changes in seasonal occurrences and timing of flowering and migration events; changes in composition of specialist vegetation communities; changes in soils and hydrology; changes in duration and depth of snow cover and ice cover on alpine lakes; and loss of ecosystem services.
In future they expect to see: less reliable snow cover and a shorter or irregular winter, with long-lasting snow retreating to only the highest mountains; loss of unique species that cannot adapt; plant and animal species more familiar to us from other environments; and higher potential for destructive bushfires.