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Ski centres eye uncertain future as winters warm

Finland's ski centres are coping with shorter, milder winters by making and storing snow – costly short-term solutions that may worsen the problem in the longer term.

Peuramaa Ski, Kirkkonummi
Image: Wif Stenger / Yle

Snowy nature is a mainstay of Finland’s tourism industry, and winter sports are deeply ingrained in its national identity. Both are under threat as winters become milder, shorter and more erratic.

"Warming winters are a problem for everybody involved with skiing, especially in southern Finland. The long-term outlook is depressing," says Panu Könönen, communications director of the Outdoor Association of Finland (Suomen Latu).

"The continuous snow cover has been arriving later, sometimes not until February or even March," confirms Yle meteorologist Anne Borgström. "We always have to wonder whether we’ll have a white Christmas now, for instance. There are huge fluctuations. There’s a lot more rain and clouds in the south, and the snow cover is thinner. For the winter sports business, this is really bad, of course."

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Map of snowline.
Fewer snow days
While the planet’s annual mean temperature has risen by roughly one degree Celsius since the mid-nineteenth century, Finland’s annual mean temperature has risen by 2.3 degrees Celsius in that time, estimates the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI), as the effects of climate change are more pronounced closer to the poles.

Sunset industry

Ski and snowboard centres in southern Finland – more than two dozen of them – represent a sunset industry. In the decades to come, some may be forced to close or concentrate on other sports activities. Some, including Vihti, Peuramaa and Teijo, already offer other activities such as golf, Frisbee golf and paintball for an ever-growing segment of the year.

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Peuramaa Ski, Kirkkonummi
Sodden spring fields around Peuramaa Image: Wif Stenger / Yle

Already these southern centres’ operating seasons have become crimped and uncertain. Solidly subzero temperatures are needed even to operate snow cannons, and these appropriately freezing conditions have not arrived until February in some recent winters.

Ironically, the measures that help in the short-term – snowmaking and storage – help to worsen the problem in the longer term. They’re also expensive. Laying down cross-country ski trails using artificial snow can cost 20-30 euros per metre.

The direct and indirect economic costs are likely to mount, as ski centres employ thousands of people, and many of them are partly or wholly owned by municipalities.

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Levin laskettelukeskuksen etelärinteen hiihtohissi.
Levi in April 2018 Image: Aku Häyrynen / Lehtikuva

For instance the country’s biggest ski centre, Levi, is 51 percent owned by the municipality of Kittilä. Levi has invested heavily in snowmaking and storage equipment.

To ensure that it could host a FIS Alpine World Cup Tour event last November, it stored 30,000 cubic metres of snow the previous spring.

Ruka, in Kuusamo, pioneered snow storage in 2015. Early last year, it manufactured a record 60,000 cubic metres of snow, twice as much as the previous year. The snow was stashed away over the summer in six covered areas on a rear slope. As a result, Ruka was able to open two slopes on October 6, its earliest season start in nearly a quarter century. But storing the white stuff and spreading it with diggers, lorries and slope machines cost about 100,000 euros – and produced a significant amount of greenhouse gases.

Lapland benefits – in the near term

Paradoxically, climate change may be a short-term advantage to tourism in northern Finland as snowy winters and unspoiled wilderness become rarer elsewhere.

"Climate change has so far increased the interest of tourists towards Lapland, as winters here have so far remained cold and snowy, as opposed to Central Europe," says Anna Häkkinen, director of House of Lapland, the regional marketing and communications body.

"Climate change has not directly affected us, due to our location pretty far north," agrees Mats Lindfors, CEO of the Ruka-Kuusamo Tourist Association in northern Finland. "We may get more snow and the temperature during January is slightly milder. As we store snow from the previous season, we’re always able to open the season in early October. We’ve improved the snow storage system and snow-making to protect us from the weather risk and start the season earlier," he says.

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Ruka verhoutuu lumeen.
Snow-making at Ruka Image: Niina Kukka / Rukakeskus
"We make storage snow in midwinter when it is at its coldest," explains Lindfors. "This consumes much less energy so is much more sustainable than making it in early winter. And using this whole infrastructure for seven months out of the year is more sustainable than using it only for, say, five." Still, the carbon footprint of the ski resorts is considerable.

"Indirectly though the lack of snow in southern Finland and Europe decreases people’s connection to winter activities and snow sports, and that may affect our business negatively," says Mats Lindfors. "In southern Finland, especially along the coast, we’ve gotten used to erratic winters and weather conditions," says Harri Lindfors (no relation), CEO of the Ski Area Association. It represents 66 centres with total sales of some 60 million euros in the winter of 2016-2017.

"As a result, ski centres have been investing in effective snowmaking systems. They can get the slopes into shape even during a short period of subzero weather. There have been great advances in snowmaking technology in recent years."

Some ski resorts have teamed up with the Finnish branch of Protect Our Winters (POW), an international climate advocacy group for the winter sports community with ambassadors such as snowboarder Enni Rukajärvi. They’ve also partnered with Motiva, a state-owned energy and sustainability consultancy.

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enni rukajärvi
Olympic medalist Enni Rukajärvi Image: Aki Lahtinen / Yle
"Ski centres have done a lot of work on energy efficiency, working with Motiva since 2008," says Harri Lindfors. "The centres have systematically continued this work since then."

'Mythical aspects' of skiing

Cross-country skiing, which is more low-tech and spread out, is more vulnerable to snow cover decline.

Nordic skiing holds an important place in Finnish heritage, long seen as an egalitarian, democratic sport – and nearly a national duty.

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Talvisota. Lumipukuisia sotilaita hiihtämässä jäällä.
Finnish troops during the Winter War Image: SA-kuva
The Outdoor Association of Finland (Suomen Latu) began as a cross-country ski group in 1938 – a year before Finnish troops on skis held off a Soviet attack during the Winter War.

"Cross-country skiing used to be a national sport in Finland, and there are mythical aspects to it," says Panu Könönen, the group’s communications director. "For instance many baby boomers still had to ski to school and we prevented the Russian invasion in the Second World War partly because our troops used skis. So, we’ve had to rethink the Finnish identity, too."

Tapping into that patriotic heritage, Northern Espoo’s Oittaa opened its cross-country ski season on Independence Day in early December, thanks to a colder microclimate than other parts of Espoo and pipes installed under the tracks. "That makes it easy to start to make artificial snow when the temperature falls below zero," he says. "And they’re still going now in mid-April."

Panu Könönen, Suomen Latu
Panu Könönen of the Outdoor Association Image: Suomen Latu
"In general, though, the season will get shorter and at some point there will be totally snowless winters in the south," predicts Könönen. "We’ll have to spend more to keep the tracks in condition and there will be entry fees. Cross-country skiing will no longer be a free sport" – as it still is even in southern cities that rely on snow-making such as Tampere, Helsinki, Vantaa and Espoo.

Some places have gone even further than installing underground pipes. Vuokatti in Kainuu, eastern Finland, opened the country’s first indoor cross-country ‘ski tube’ in 1998. That has been followed by similar all-weather covered facilities in Helsinki and four other southern towns.

And, using snowmaking and storage, Vuokatti was first to open the outdoor Nordic ski season last autumn, unveiling its first 1.5 km trail on October 10. The previous spring, the centre had churned out 50,000 cubic metres of snow and stored it under sawdust for the summer. That was enough for 5-8 km of trails at a depth of 60-100 cm – and cost well over 100,000 euros.

Nowadays less than four out of 10 Finns cross-country ski, and the numbers are dropping. Könönen notes that most of his 11-year-old son’s classmates barely know how to ski, let alone own a pair.

"So if there are only a few children who can ski and less snow, it’s obvious that there will be fewer skiers in coastal Finland in the future," he says. "We at Suomen Latu have been always eager to find other ways to enjoy outdoor recreation besides skiing. At the moment trail running and mountain biking are big hits."

And, as a SYKE/FMI report drily states: "The enjoyment of skiing may decline when track made of artificial snow is surrounded by a grimly grey landscape."

Still a few good old-fashioned winters

Jari Uusikivi, a hydrologist at the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE), confirms the anecdotal evidence.

"Comparing 1970-2000 with 2000-2018, the snow cover period has become shorter and much more variable. It’s shortened by 2-4 weeks in southern and western Finland and 1-2 weeks in the east and north. And there’s been a large increase in variability, especially south of a line from Oulu to Joensuu," he says.

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Yyterin dyynit vähälumisena talvena.
November at Pori's Yyteri dunes Image: Yle / Päivi Meritähti
Looking to the future, "southern and western regions will see further decrease in snow duration and thickness through 2050. By then, there will not be snow cover each year. Most years will see only a short period of snow cover, but there will still be some winters that resemble the good old winters from the past," says Uusikivi.

In northern Finland, the changes will be relatively minor until around 2030.

"After that, there will be a steady decrease in snow cover duration and thickness, and the variability between years will be much larger than now," says Uusikivi says. "In Inari, the snow duration will decrease by 1-3 months by 2050. In Rovaniemi, winters will resemble those we’ve been having in southern Finland since the turn of the millennium."

Over the past 30 years, Helsinki has had snow cover an average of 98 days per winter, just over three months. But there are much bigger variations now. In 2007-08, for instance, there were only nine days like this, mostly in March. In comparison, some winters in the 1960s brought snow cover for more than five months.

Meteorologi Anne Borgström.
Yle meteorologist Anne Borgström Image: Yle

"It still gets cold and snowy for at least part of each winter, even in the south," says meteorologist Borgström. "And in Sodänkylä, Lapland, for instance, they still have about seven months of snow cover. They’ll probably get more snow in the future. All the scenarios show more precipitation – more snow in the north and more rain in the south. Winters are becoming cloudier and darker in the south, especially without snow on the ground to reflect the light."

And on the way to the slopes or tracks, she says, there will be more potholes in the roads due to the rain and temperature fluctuations – another cost to be absorbed by local governments, some of whom also own ski slopes that may turn out to be white elephants.

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