Professional skiers in a warming world find themselves in an icy position. Their livelihood relies on snow and cold temperatures, but essentials like travel and snowmaking come with an environmental cost. So, how do athletes stand by their convictions and make a living?
"I don't know how to settle those two sides of the coin in my own mind,” said Aspen native and Olympic cross country skier Noah Hoffman.
Hoffman is training for the 2018 Olympics and getting ready for the first World Cup race of this season. He’s passionate about skiing, but he’s also committed to environmentally sustainable practices. In the past couple of years on the World Cup circuit, Hoffman and his teammate Simi Hamilton are finding that those two don’t always mix.
Hamilton is the 9th fastest cross country skier in the world, and late this fall, he hit the pavement up Independence Pass on roller skis. There’s not enough snow to train in Aspen yet, but that’s something he’s getting used to on the World Cup circuit. Year after year, Hamilton watches the snow line move further up the mountains.
“We would be in the high Alps at 6,000 feet, trying to train in mid-January, and we'd still be training on just a two-foot deep platform of man-made snow and there’s green grass next to the trails,” he explained.
A missed turn on this ribbon of snow means skiers get grass stains, and that’s the new reality of cross country skiing. But World Cup races go on, even with warming temperatures.
"We never question whether a World Cup venue is going to have snow anymore because these guys have gotten so good at snow farming," Hoffman explained.
Snow farming is a booming industry in Europe and Scandinavia, and it isn’t a totally new idea. For decades, ski areas have supplemented natural snowfall with man-made stuff.
The newest method involves blowing huge piles of snow in one central location and trucking it to fill in the course.
Even this doesn’t work when it's unseasonably warm. Snowmaking machines only work when temperatures are below freezing. All too often, nature doesn’t cooperate until long after World Cup season starts in November.
But Hoffman described how race organizers have found a band-aid for this, too.
“They hollow out a pit, out of the earth. In the dead of winter when it’s almost always cold enough to blow snow, they blow as big of a pile as they can, essentially, and then they cover it with a couple inches of sawdust for the summer,” he said.
This may sound crazy, but it’s becoming the norm across Scandinavia and at several venues in Europe.
"All these places save snow over the summer so they can guarantee open by Nov. 1st at the latest,” Hoffman said.
So, as Hoffman and Hamilton head out to the first World Cup races in Finland this month, they’re sure they’ll see snow, but it comes with a cost.
"The hardest part is that snow farming is not environmentally friendly," Hoffman said.
This is an energy-intensive process: cooling water, blowing snow and powering trucks to cart it all around. It’s a vicious cycle for these winter athletes. A warmer world means less snow; less snow means more snowmaking … and well, you get the point.
But Hoffman and Hamilton are convinced this isn’t a lost cause. Hamilton might not be a household name in the U.S., but he is a top athlete in a sport that’s hugely popular in Scandinavia and parts of Europe.
"I want to be able to use that as a tool to generate interest and advocacy for something like climate change awareness and environmental sustainability,” Hamilton said.
He works with the advocacy group Protect our Winters, a coalition of winter sports athletes who lobby for sustainable practices and climate awareness.
For both of these athletes, racing on the international stage means moral conflict. Hoffman sounds pained when he describes the ways his racing contributes to climate change: burning fossil fuels to travel the world, using water and energy to make snow, even releasing fluorocarbons as he waxes his skis.
He also knows that these problems — climate change and dwindling snow — are not caused by skiers alone. So he hopes his career can help more than it hurts.
"I think there are some benefits to professional cross country skiing in terms of promoting a sport that is really healthy, and promotes an active lifestyle, and promotes a love for the environment, and for being outdoors in the winter, and for winter climate in general,” Hoffman said.
So, even as Hoffman knows his Olympic dream contributes to the problem, that love for winter climate just might help the sport, and even the planet.