Great Outdoors column: Cross-country skiing vulnerable to climate change

Normally, at this time of year I am already looking forward to the coming of spring.

I’m not a winter person – never have been and never will be. I prefer to stay indoors where it’s nice and warm, and read a good book or watch a bit of television. At least I used to. Television is downright depressing these days what with American politics dominating the news and then there’s natural disasters, wars, famine and global warming. It’s all too much.

It almost makes you want to take up something like cross-country skiing or ice fishing – just to get out of the house and away from the TV. There is, however, a certain irony in such a statement.

While an estimated 870,000 Canadians participate in cross-country skiing each winter, it is an outdoor activity that relies on natural snowfall (unlike downhill skiing and snowboarding operators who are able to produce artificial snow to provide and or augment the necessary snow pack needed for quality skiing and boarding). This dependency on natural snow, combined with the fact that the majority of cross-country ski trails are found at lower-elevation areas, has made cross-country skiing vulnerable to the effects of global warming and climate change.

Around the world, across Canada and here in B.C., rising temperatures have noticeably affected snowfall patterns. Satellite data shows the extent of winter snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased by about eight per cent during the last 80 years, while spring snow cover has decreased even more, shrinking 10 per cent since the mid 1960s. Environment Canada data shows that over the last 50 years, the snow season in Western Canada has decreased by nearly five weeks.

Perhaps it was Canadian Olympic cross-country silver medalist Sara Renner who really shed light on the subject when she painted a rather ominous picture of where cross-country skiing is headed (downhill) when she said, “Throughout my 15-year career as an Olympic cross-country skier I have experienced, first-hand, the impacts of climate change. The seasons have become less predictable and, in general, there is less natural snow. World Cup racing now depends on snow-making, whereas 20 years ago snow-making didn’t exist.”

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While I’m on the subject of irony and winter activities, a couple of years ago I decided to try out ice fishing. I even went so far as to purchase all the necessary gear. I have to say that I never really understood the attraction to ice fishing in the first place and, like I said, I’ve never really been what you could call a winter person, so you have to appreciate the fact that it was more out of curiosity than inclination that I even made the decision to try ice fishing.

The irony of it all is that since I made the decision to try my hand at ice fishing there has not been enough ice on most of our local lakes for me to even consider trying out my new gear. I mean it’s one thing to not have enough snow for something like cross-country or downhill skiing, it is another to venture out onto thin ice and end up drowning.

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A further irony, it would seem, is that a lot of winter activities that are dependent on snow, ice and cold temperatures are also apparently on rather thin ice. Quite simply, warmer winter temperatures, caused by global warming and climate change, are reducing the natural snow pack in many areas of Canada – the effect of which is being felt on many levels from sports and outdoor winter activities to flooding and forest fires, drought and natural disasters. Global warming and climate change will eventually affect everything we do on this planet. We need to act sooner than later – that is obvious.

If I might use a sports analogy, it would seem that in so many ways we are all in the same boat, because without adequate snow pack in winter months, there is less water runoff in the spring and summer months and that means less opportunities for fishing, boating, kayaking, canoeing or any other outdoor activity that requires water. Then there are all the direct and indirect effects on the environment and natural habitats. The list goes on.

Not to make light of a very serious subject, but I think one of the best comments on global warming and climate change that I ever heard was also a sports analogy – “Nature bats last.”


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