SOS: Save Our Snow: Winter Athletes Take the Lead in Fighting Global Warming

By Belli, Brita | E Magazine, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

SOS: Save Our Snow: Winter Athletes Take the Lead in Fighting Global Warming


Belli, Brita, E Magazine


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"And if the snow buries my neighborhood, And if my parents are crying then I'll dig a tunnel from my window to yours, yeah a tunnel from my window to yours."--The Arcade Fire, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)"

"When I was a kid, I remember walking in tunnels of snow," says 25-year-old alpine skier Steven Nyman, who won his first World Cup downhill race this year. "It was like that Arcade Fire song where they talk about digging tunnels in the snow to get from house to house. Now it seems like it only happens every five to 10 years. I lived in Sundance, Utah, which prides itself on being environmentally friendly--we used to get so much snow. Now it's two- to three-foot snowbanks. I remember six- to eight-feet back in the day. But I was a lot shorter then."

Nyman's not kidding--at 6'4", he's among the tallest World Cup competitors--but the rapid deterioration of coveted "powder" on the slopes is obvious at any perspective. Traveling the world with the U.S. ski team, Nyman and other skiers, snowboarders and top winter athletes have found themselves chasing off-season snow, missing out on crucial contests cancelled due to unseasonable 60-degree weather, or competing in rough conditions as the snow rapidly melts and compacts beneath their skis and boards. They've been trying to out-run global warming's effects.

Hockey players are getting nervous, too. While the pros all play in controlled, indoor arenas, many of them started on outdoor ponds and lakes. Hockey's biggest legend, Canadian Wayne Gretzky (currently the head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes), first skated with the neighborhood kids on a backyard rink built by his dad. Now, from Canada to Vermont, New York to Boston, the tradition of outdoor skating has nearly been lost.

One of hockey's most outspoken eco-advocates is 28-year-old Boston Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference, who's pushing for a carbon-neutral commitment from the entire National Hockey League. Ference's Canadian childhood was spent building snow forts, skiing through powder and skating on the family tennis court that his dad froze over so the local kids could play hockey.

Over the last few years, all of that has begun to change. "The Ottawa canal, which everybody skates on, was unskatable for much of last winter just because it didn't get cold enough," says Ference. "That was a big turning point because a lot of people in the hockey community said, 'Geez, you know, I can't go skating in Ottawa in the winter,' which is such a great tradition. People couldn't skate at Christmas. So, if there was a wake-up call, that was it." Some Canadian papers have even reported that, as the blizzard-like conditions wane, taking with them the ability to complain about blizzard-like conditions, the very national identity is at stake.

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For 26-year-old pro snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler, who has won more halfpipe competitions than any other female snowboarder, the receding winters are evident in the shorter, milder winters in her hometown of Aspen, Colorado, the deteriorating snowbanks on worldwide slopes and the last-minute cancellations of major snowboarding events.

"We moved to Aspen when I was 10," says Bleiler. "I remember the first year we went to school there were avalanche danger days. The snow would rise so high in the V-shaped valley. Then this past season was one of the hardest to compete. They had to cancel the Grand Prix in New Jersey [last February] because it was too warm to even make snow."

Chasing the Snow

For skiers and snowboarders who depend on regular snowfalls, both for year-round practice and for competitions, the shift to warmer winters across the eastern U.S. and much of Europe has left them with limited venues. Over the last 16 years, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has tracked the number of days that its 326 member ski resorts are open. The data shows that the resorts have lost one day per season over those 16 years and 1. …

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