The warming climate poses great challenges for winter sports enthusiasts

Skiers queue for the chairlift at Ski Martock in Windsor, NS (Jeremy Hull - photo credit)

Skiers queue for the chairlift at Ski Martock in Windsor, NS (Jeremy Hull – photo credit)

Paige Neklia has been training to represent Nova Scotia at the Canadian Winter Games since 2019. High temperatures and little snowfall pose particular challenges for cross-country skiers this year.

“I couldn’t ski here at all,” said Neklia.

She and her parents drive thousands of miles round-trip from their home in Prospect Bay, NS to areas with more snow like Fredericton, Charlo and Miramichi, NB every weekend. They are the closest places for Neklia to get practice time on real snow.

Neklia’s problem is local to Nova Scotia but global in scope. Three of the first four Ski World Cup events for the 2022-2023 season have been canceled due to unsuitable warmer conditions at ski resorts in Switzerland, Italy and Austria.

Alex Ryan is the head coach of the provincial freestyle team and technical director of Snowboard Nova Scotia. Ryan was also a provincial skier for five years, competing nationally for Nova Scotia and has been witnessing climate change ever since.

“We would have started our season earlier. I remember racing on snow for most of my competitive years leading up to Christmas,” he said.

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Ryan said his team has had a preseason training camp in Quebec for the past two years and that alpine athletes from Nova Scotia have always had to supplement their training with travel. Nova Scotia’s ski slopes are doing what they can to support local athletes, Ryan said, but there are limits to their capacity.

“Our local resorts have not been able to blow enough snow and receive enough natural snow to build a suitable park,” he said.

Nobody in Nova Scotia makes snow for Nordic events like cross-country skiing, so competitors like Neklia have to hunt real snow to train.

Uncertain conditions on the rise

Natalie Knowles is a PhD student at the University of Waterloo and Director of Research at Protect Our Winters (POW), an organization dedicated to researching and advancing climate action to preserve winter sports. Knowles examines the ideal conditions for alpine and Nordic competitions.

“We surveyed around 400 athletes who compete at an international level to define the ideal conditions that create the best surface and environment that is safe, fair and allows them to perform at their best,” said Knowles.

“Because of the conditions defined by these athletes, the range of possible goals for Winter Games is becoming narrower and narrower.”

Their study showed that the frequency of “unfair-unsafe” conditions has increased over the past 50 years at the 21 Winter Olympics venues.

Knowles said the lower temperatures, which offer consistent and safe surfaces for capable skiers, are harder to find than when the Games began in 1924. It’s clear that the seasons are getting shorter and athletes worldwide are reporting retreating glaciers. Event cancellations due to poor conditions can leave some athletes behind.

“For athletes who are on or about to, missed events could mean they don’t qualify for other events,” Knowles said.

Knowles points out that most of the alpine events at the Beijing Olympics took place on artificial snow. She adds that elite level organizers should still be able to host events.

Knowles said the extra travel in search of snow creates an economic hurdle for teams, athletes and recreational skiers, and is another contributor to climate change.

“It makes skiing an even less accessible sport,” Knowles said.

“What I’m really seeing is the loss of the base, the loss of the little ski hills that kids grow up on, the shortening of the seasons.”



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