Eager skiers have been making some of their last treks of the season this week amid rising concerns about the future for snow itself. Last week’s blizzard in Norway was extraordinary in more ways than one, accompanied by new gloomy predictions that the next generation of Norwegians won’t grow up with much snow at all.
2014 was the warmest year ever recorded in Norway. Climate researchers fear it’s far from the last, with Hans Olav Hygen of the state meteorological institute warning that the golden age of winter sports in Oslo may be over.
“I wouldn’t invest a lot of money in a ski area near Oslo,” Hygen told newspaper Dagsavisen earlier this winter. “There’s no doubt that we’re on the verge of radical changes.” He had no faith in the recent failed bid to mount another Winter Olympics in Oslo in 2022: “I think time is running out for something like that.”
When Hygen was interviewed in January, the landscape outside his office in Oslo’s Blindern district was snow-free, the weather wet and mild. “It won’t be long before this is what’s normal,” said Hygen, who has a doctorate in meteorology. A blizzard that all but paralyzed much of southern Norway last week is clearly now seen as an exception and not the rule.
The ‘new normal’
A lack of snow also caused problems for organizers of the recent Nordic World Ski Championships across the border in Sweden. Much of the snow used to form the cross-country tracks was artificial, while spectators stood mostly on snow-free grounds in the midst of a green forest. Norwegian skiers mined a heap of gold medals at the event in mid-February, but newspaper Aftenposten pointed out that behind all the action and the medals ceremonies lurked the danger of warm temperatures and greyish-brown man-made ski trails that may make future athletes choose other sports.
Falun, where the World Championships were held, is among areas predicted to get more rain and even less snow in the years to come, just like Oslo and Trondheim, which also have hosted championship competition. In Oslo, there was no snow before Christmas and the skiing in the hills that surround the city wasn’t possible until January. In Trondheim, which is boldly applying to host the world championships again in 2021, it was also mild, with its trails covered with artificial snow.
Concerns about the dwindling amounts of snow are not new, but they’re being taken more seriously as the months roll by. The magazine for newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), D2, ran a cover story last weekend with specific predictions for the number of ski days (defined as a day with more than 25 centimeters of snow) at all of Norway’s most popular skiing areas in 2050. It was prepared by Professor Asgeir Sorteberg at the University of Bergen, with both best- and worst-case scenarios. Even the best was depressing for skiers, with major reductions in all categories.
Sorteberg, who works at the university’s institute for geophysics, said his home base of Bergen is unlikely to get much snow at all 35 years from now because of climate change. “It’s sad, we’ll lose a whole season,” he told D2. Ski slopes near cities like Drammen and Oslo are already often bare unless temperatures are cold enough to produce artificial snow.
Many developers and even the banks, however, still don’t think much about how “snow-certain” area will be where investment is considered or being made in ski centers. They probably should: Three researchers writing in DN on Friday have statistics to back up their prediction that the ski season can become two to three months shorter than it is now. Instead of beginning in November and ending in April, future ski seasons may only be a month or six weeks long. This year’s season around Oslo has lasted around nine weeks so far.
Air temperatures in Norway have increased 0.8 degrees in winter and 1.5 degrees in the spring, the researchers noted. “The snow is arriving later and melting earlier, giving us fewer ski days, especially around Oslo and Trondheim,” wrote Dagrun Vikhamar Schuler and Ketil Isaksen of the meteorological institute and Ingjerd Haddeland and Hege Hisdal of the state waterways and energy directorate NVE. Areas along the coast and at lower elevations aren’t getting the snow they once did, and there will be less of it in the future, they argue. Even “snow-certain” areas like Sjusjøen and Tryil face much shorter skiing seasons in the years ahead.
Oil industry paradox
Norway’s own oil and gas industry gets much of the blame for the emissions believed to cause climate change, but it paradoxically is likely to remain the country’s economic locomotive despite the current slowdown caused by the fall in oil prices. Meteorologists have been urging serious cuts in emissions for years and now some athletes are, too, although probably not those who ironically are sponsored by oil and gas companies.
Mountain climber and skier Tormod Granheim and snowboarder Kjersti Buaas are fronting the American network POW (Protect Our Winters) in Norway. “We see the changes, everyone who engages in winter sports sees that conditions are changing,” Granheim told D2. He noted that many don’t feel comfortable in an environmental organization and he hopes the network will appeal to more people and spread the word. He’s become a vegetarian, largely because emissions created by the meat industry, and POW organizes pooled transportation and recycling of sports equipment as part of efforts to reduce emissions harmful to the climate.
Espen Bengston, manager of the Oslo Vinterpark sports center, claims he and his staff are taking climate change seriously. They buy climate quotas and hope to get better collective public transport to the area, while they’re also creating summer activities to get more out of the area and its shorter winter seasons. Officials at Oslo’s main ski association Skiforeningen seem determined to remain optimistic.
“It’s sad that temperatures are rising, but we’re not worried about skiing possibilities in the future,” Espen Jonhaugen of Skiforeningen told Dagsavisen. “We have a perspective towards 2050. It will be warmer, but there will also be more precipitation. If the temperature is around zero, we can still have good skiing.”
His colleague Øyvind Amundsen remembers a string of “bad winters” at the end of the 1980s. “We began to wonder if the end was near,” he said. “We didn’t have snow canons then.” Now they’re also working hard to create ski trails that are better suited for winters without much snow. They want Oslo folks to continue to be able to go skiing close to home.