For lovers of the outdoors like surfers, skiers, and snowboarders, our passions are intrinsically linked to the natural world because we come into contact with it every time we do what we love. I, myself, was first pushed down the slopes as an infant some twenty odd years ago. Since then, two things have become apparent to me in the traditional European ski season. First, the amount of snow has decreased, especially in the lower altitude resorts. Second, the snow is arriving later and later each season (December to April). Why? The obvious and most accepted response to that question can simply point a finger at global warming.
While skiing and snow sports, in general, are by no means all-encompassing contributors to increased gas emissions, the sport and culture do contribute to the challenges we face in a number of ways. It begs the question: can skiing, ski resorts, and the environment coexist?
First of all, building an entire infrastructure in a mountain range a thousand meters above sea level does not happen naturally. To operate one ski lift for a month, for example, requires the same energy needed to power 3.8 households for one year. Piste machines guzzle liter after liter of fuel to provide freshly-groomed runs each morning. And as a byproduct, their emissions contribute to the warming of the atmosphere. It may be marginal, but it is a footprint nonetheless. And this is all before we consider the emissions of traveling by car or plane to resorts around the world.
And perhaps the most environmentally-controversial development in the ski industry is the snow canon, a technological advancement that was ironically brought on by the shortage of snow in places around the world. These machines spray particles of water combined with a nucleating agent into the freezing air to create a layer of artificial snow on the piste. It’s estimated that artificial snow consumes the same amount of water each year as 1.5 million people across the Alps, allowing lower altitude resorts to prolong their season and provide more consistent snow cover through the traditional season. The conservation group Mountain Wilderness asserts “4,000 cubic meters of water are needed to cover one hectare of piste for the season, whereas a hectare of corn only needs 1,700.”
It all sounds a bit dark and dreary, but they’re necessary challenges for ski resorts to understand how they can position themselves to create positive change for the environment. The most obvious effort needed, it seems, is converting the high energy-consuming components of a resort to renewable energy sources. Ironically, while the President of the United States is a known climate change denier, his country’s ski resorts lead the charge in this approach. The Colorado resort of Aspen claims to offset its energy use by purchasing renewable energy certificates from wind farms and their grooming vehicles run off biodiesel. Meanwhile, Vail has installed low-flow public toilet fixtures which save nine Olympic swimming pools worth of water each year.
In Europe, a great deal of effort has been put into rewarding resorts for their environmental work. The Flocon Vert (green snowflake) is a sustainable certifying label run by Mountain Riders, a French group campaigning to push sustainability in winter sports. The Flocon Vert is perhaps the most strictly regulated labeling scheme and applies to the entire operation of a ski resort. As a consequence, it has only been awarded to one Swiss resort and a handful in the French Alps. The Sustainable Mountain Tourism Alliance (SMTA), a global network of groups working for sustainability in alpine tourism, view labels such as the Flocon Vert as the key to encouraging sustainable development in mountain regions. Initiatives like this encourage businesses to reduce their energy consumption. This has been illustrated on a greater scale by Tripadvisor who unveiled their Green Leaders Program in 2015, allowing customers to choose accommodations based on how environmentally friendly a business is. Tripadvisor states that Green Leader businesses are 20 percent more likely to be booked compared to those that haven’t signed up for the program. It’s an effort that gives the consumer power to alter how ski resorts are run by demanding certain environmental standards.
Ski resorts also encourage different forms of skiing as a way to reduce their footprint. Ski touring, for example, or riding in the backcountry. This form of skiing has a very light impact on the environment because it’s done using our own power, not that of a chairlift. It’s becoming more and more popular but still makes up the minority of skiers or snowboarders at a given resort.
Now, how does surfing fair in a world of increased greenhouse emissions? Not great, it would seem. In 2016 there were roughly 20 million surfers and growing. While catching and riding waves itself has a low impact on the environment, the same can’t be said for the resources that make it all possible. For example, 750,000 new surfboards are created each year for a rapidly growing industry. This equates to 220,000 tons of CO2e. But how? Oil has to be extracted for a lot of the plastic-based parts of a board such as the resin and fins. The various raw materials and products created have to be transported all the time, adding carbon to the atmosphere. The average polyester based shortboard has a carbon footprint of close to 400lbs CO2e. To put that in context, a flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu, Hawaii produces 750lbs CO2e. And to bring it all home, after all that, the standard board will almost inevitably end up in a landfill where it will never decompose.
There are a number of ways we can make greener decisions when it comes to our surfboards. First, buying a board that suits your ability, height and weight means it will last longer and lead to less waste. Also, extra points if this board happened to be secondhand. Once that board inevitably breaks down, you can always give it new life. Artists regularly turn recycled surfboards into furniture, or you could simply hang it on your wall as a piece of art. I am currently turning an old foamie into a new model altogether. And many manufacturers are now producing boards with the environment at the forefront of their concerns. Firewire was one of the first to embrace the ECOBOARD Project, which aimed to put an environmental standard on production through a reduced carbon footprint, renewable, recycled and up-cycled materials, and reduced toxicity in manufacturing.
Much like choosing a ski resort based on its environmental accreditations, choosing surf based products with the environment in mind is more and more common these days. Wetsuits are the other essential piece of equipment for a large population of surfers and the neoprene used to make a wetsuit often comes from petroleum, a not-so-environmentally-friendly substance. In the last decade, we’ve seen businesses like Patagonia invest a lot of time and effort into a greener process of their own. As of last year, they introduced the first neoprene-free wetsuit, made from natural rubber.
Meanwhile, the status quo wetsuit is still eventually thrown away or left to gather dust in the furthest corner of the shed after a couple of years of use. Finisterre, a UK based surf company, is collecting old wetsuits and will be releasing a line of recycled wetsuits in the near future.
I feel that simply living on earth should be enough for you to care about how well we look after it. But any activity which involves spending time in the natural world does bring the perspective of just how fragile it all is. I think the message we’re often fed is framed in ways that don’t evoke a reaction from enough people. We’re told we have to save the planet, but the truth is the planet itself can be fine with or without us, regardless of what we do. The real danger, however, is that we may accidentally turn this into an ugly planet that isn’t easy for humans to live on. The real conversation doesn’t have to be about saving our planet, it should be about saving our species.
It’s true that lovers of the ocean and lovers of the mountains share a long list of traits. Above all, they share the experience of pursuing their passions in environments that are threatened. We are a selfish, consumerist bunch. We want the thing we love to be around for as long as possible and we want to buy the products that surround our passion. And maybe this isn’t a negative thing. Maybe having a selfish interest in something will be our salvation, the very thing that directs the masses toward greener products and greener decisions.