Climate Change Hits The Slopes

As winter snow cover becomes more unpredictable, Finnish ski resorts are finding new ways to keep cold, and lower their own environmental impact.

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File picture of snowboarder jumping / Credit: iStock Photo

At the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn this month, politicians, scientists and experts are discussing the impact of rising global temperatures – among a host of other pressing environmental concerns.

Closer to home, snow-watchers in Finland have already seen the effects of climate change, especially in the ski industry, which relies on steady snow fall to be viable.

Ruka Opens

There was already enough snow at Ruka resort in Lapland to open some slopes in October this year.

Last weekend the resort’s grand opening took place, with several thousand skiers and snowboarders taking to the runs.

For a few days though, it was touch-and-go whether the event would be a success or not. Thursday and Friday brought rain, and ski managers were concerned about the number of runs they could open, or how much of the snow would melt.

Luckily, Saturday brought wintry weather again, and the launch event was saved.

Ruka has a three-pronged approach to ensuring there’s enough snow for skiers at this time of the season. Of course, they hope there will be natural snow fall. But they’ve also saved snow from last season, and will make snow artificially as well, to add depth.

“We had two slopes open already on 6th October made from stored snow, and the whole of October it was at least quite cold so we managed” says Tuomas Lukkonen, event manager at Rukakeskus Oy.

“On Friday it was raining and the snow was melting quite fast. But on Saturday afternoon it started to snow, and now 15 centimetres of natural snow has come” he says.

Changing Conditions

Snow conditions at Ruka and other Finnish ski resorts weren’t always so hit-and-miss. In previous years, they could rely on heavy cover from first snow, right through to the end of the season.

But climate change has affected the snow conditions noticeably.

“One thing you can see, it’s more sporadic. Fifteen or twenty years ago you know that in October the cold temperatures come and the winter comes and stays. Now you get cold weather in October, but it might be followed by a warm spell” says Jusu Toivonen, Development Manager at Lapland’s Pyhä ski resort.

“It’s more sporadic, it’s just really difficult to count on anything, and much more stressful for people working here because you don’t know if you will be able to make snow” Toivonen adds.

Resorts like Ruka, Pyhä and others are planning for the long haul, with serious efforts being put into making the towns year-round destinations, and attracting summer visitors for hiking, biking, fishing and adventure activities. But it takes time to cement the idea that some of Finland’s best-known ski destinations, could be summer vacation spots too.

Graphic showing snowfall statistics from 1981 to 2010 / Credit: Finnish Meteorological Institute

Science Fact Check

At the Finnish Meteorological Institute FMI, data going back 30 years paints a long term picture of winter conditions across the country.

Although FMI’s website says ‘global climate is expected to warm in the upcoming decades and so will the winter months turn milder in Finland’ it’s tough to see an obvious trend in the statistics.

For example, at Helsinki Airport weather station, temperatures were relatively mild on Christmas Eve from the early 1980s right through to the mid-1990s; while in the second half of the 1990s the temperatures were considerably colder. Snowfall was also very low through most of the last 30 years, but spiked in 2009 and 2010, and hit a high of 55cm on Christmas Eve 2012.

It’s a fairly similar temperature pattern at Jyväskylä in Central Finland. But in Sodankylä in Lapland, there is an obvious warming of temperatures, and reduction in snowfall over the course of the last 30 years, according to FMI’s statistics.

“The snow period will get shorter on average everywhere” explains Ari Laaksonen, Head of FMI’s Climate Change Unit.

“In Lapland it is still several months of snow every year, but in the south of Finland you could have some winters with a lot of snow, and others with almost now snow at all” he says.

“For ski resorts in Central Finland, it already starts to be more unsecure for them, what kind of snowy period they’re going to have for a given year” says Laaksonen.

Ski Resorts Go Green

Finland’s ski industry is perhaps more aware than most about the impact of climate change. And they’re trying to amend their own working practices to go green.

“We only use green energy, and we try to reduce our energy and be more efficient regarding energy use” Pyhä ski resort’s Jusu Toivonen tells News Now Finland.

“We try to recycle and collect more natural snow using snow fences. Collecting natural snow and using less artificial snow is how we save energy” he says.

In Finland’s largest resorts, they’ve been developing an energy-efficient way of operating for many years as a key way to save costs.

At Levi ski resort, they’re using systems that measure snow depth so they don’t need to make unnecessary snow. They’re also experimenting with a hybrid roller machine powered by a combination of diesel and electricity which consumes a third less power than a traditional machine.

During the darkest months, ski resorts use a lot of energy to light the runs. Led lighting has been tested in both Ylläs and Levi.

Virtually all Finland’s ski resorts are cutting their emissions, lowering their energy profile, trying to buy from renewable energy sources where possible, and replacing old equipment with more energy-efficient models.

White Christmas?

Considering the impact of climate change, what are the chances of a white Christmas across Finland?

The Finnish Meteorological Institute keeps average statistics on this as well.

If you’re living in the Åland Islands, only every second Christmas will be white. In Turku and up the west coast, about every six to eight Christmases will be white; while in the capital city region on average, eight or nine out of ten Christmases will have snow cover.

By the time you get close to Lapland, it’s guaranteed. For now.