Warming climate presents big challenges for winter athletes

Skiers line up for the chair lift at Ski Martock in Windsor, N.S. (Jeremy Hull - image credit)
Skiers line up for the chair lift at Ski Martock in Windsor, N.S. (Jeremy Hull - image credit)

Paige Neklia has been training since 2019 to represent Nova Scotia at the Canada Winter Games. This year, high temperatures and low snowfall are presenting unique challenges for the cross-country skiier.

"I haven't been able to ski around here at all," Neklia said.

She and her parents drive a thousand kilometres round-trip every weekend from their home in Prospect Bay, N.S., to areas with more snow like Fredericton, Charlo and Miramichi, N.B. They are the closest places for Neklia to get training time on real snow.

Neklia's problem is local to Nova Scotia, but global in scale. Three of the first four World Cup of Skiing events for the 2022-2023 season were cancelled because warmer conditions were unsuitable at resorts in Switzerland, Italy and Austria.

Alex Ryan is the head coach of the provincial freestyle team and the technical director of Snowboard Nova Scotia. Ryan was also a provincial skier for five years who competed for Nova Scotia at the national level and has seen the climate change since then.

"We would have earlier starts to our season. I remember getting on snow almost all of my competitive years before Christmas," he said.

Peter Gadd
Peter Gadd

Ryan said his team had a pre-season training camp in Quebec for the last two years and that Nova Scotian alpine athletes have always had to supplement their training with travel. Nova Scotia ski hills do as much as they can to support local athletes, Ryan said, but there are limits to their capacity.

"Our local resorts haven't been able to blow enough snow and receive enough natural snow to build a suitable park," he said.

No one in Nova Scotia is generating snow for Nordic events like cross-country skiing, so competitors like Neklia need to chase real snow to train.

Unsafe conditions on the rise

Natalie Knowles is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo and a research director at Protect Our Winters (POW), an organization to study and foster climate action that will preserve winter sports. Knowles studies the ideal conditions for competitive alpine and Nordic events.

"We surveyed around 400 athletes who compete at the international level to define what the ideal conditions are that create the best surface and environment that's safe and fair and allows them to compete at their best," Knowles said.

"Based on the conditions defined by those athletes, the range of possible destinations for winter games is getting narrow."

Her study showed the frequency of "unfair-unsafe" conditions has increased over the last 50 years across the 21 Olympic Winter Games host locations.

Knowles said the lower temperatures that provide consistent and safe surfaces for high-performance skiers are harder to find than they were when the games began in 1924. It's clear that seasons are getting shorter, and athletes are reporting receding glaciers worldwide. Cancellations of events due to poor conditions can leave some athletes behind.

"For athletes who are coming up, or on the brink, 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 were held on manufactured snow. She adds that at an elite level, organizers should still be able to host events.

Knowles said that the added travel in the pursuit of snow is an economic hurdle for teams, athletes and recreational skiers and a further contributor to climate change.

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

"What I really see is loss at the grassroots level, loss of the small ski hills that kids grow up on, shortening seasons."