Cold wet conditions at Thredbo. Photo: Jay Cronan
The 2013 winter will go down as one of the worst for snow. Last summer was Australia's hottest, the autumn, too, was warm, and the winter we've just had continued the trend by being one of the warmest on record across the continent. As for those parts of Australia that receive snowfall, in Victoria it was the warmest on record, in NSW it was the second warmest. In the ACT it was the warmest on record, setting a new average of 14.1 degrees. The previous warmest ACT winter was only two years ago. Are we losing winter?
As thousands of skiers and snowboarders experienced this year, all that warmth translated into very poor snow conditions. July's snowfalls were interleaved with devastating rain. In August we finally had decent snow and at Snowy Hydro's Spencers Creek measuring point the depth at last crawled above a metre (normally you would expect well above a metre by that time). But no sooner had the snow arrived than so did above-average spring temperatures that quickly melted the snow cover. The skiing and boarding season is winding up prematurely right across the resorts.
The ski resorts often like to promote particular seasons as record good ones, but even this year the resorts were mostly despondent in their reports. Last year a number of statements were made about it being a record good year. Yet the distinguishing feature of the 2012 winter in the Snowies was a high snowline - about 1650-1700 metres. Below that, skiing was very poor. For the past couple of years, cross-country skiing in the northern end of Kosciuszko National Park has been almost non-existent. The snow at the Mount Selwyn resort has been mostly of the manufactured variety at these times.
As natural snow is becoming more variable, snow-making is increasingly central to the resorts' viability. Without artificial snow, skiing and boarding sometimes wouldn't happen across many runs. When I started skiing in the 1970s there was little snow-making anywhere. Today it is a big part of winter in the mountains.
None of this is new, or should be seen as new. Research by the CSIRO, the Australian National University, Griffith University and the Bureau of Meteorology has been saying for some time that with global warming Australia's snow cover has either lessened or will lessen further in the future. Recent research at the University of NSW shows the snow seasons are getting shorter. My short film, High Stakes, which I made in 2009, made that same statement.
There have always been bad snow years. Just like Australia's rainfall, its snowfall is extremely variable. But the bad snow years can no longer be shrugged off as something unimportant, as something that we can ignore in the hope of a better season next year.
The loss of snow threatens to have devastating effects. We've already heard from depressed business owners in the mountains talking about the financial impact of this year's poor winter for tourism. More broadly, our major rivers rise in the Snowies and less snow may mean less water. The Murray River's mountain catchment occupies just 3 per cent of the land area of the Murray-Darling Basin yet contributes 33 per cent of the river's flow. Warm winters could well affect the Basin food bowl.
Climate change hits more than just people. The snow country is home to plants and animals seen nowhere else on Earth, making it a special place. Australia's mountain pygmy possum - the world's only hibernating marsupial - is already listed as endangered. But only one 10th of 1 per cent of Australia's flat, old landmass is snow country. As the snowline rises, the future for this animal looks at risk. No wonder a captive-breeding program is being planned to create an insurance population.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd named climate change as the greatest moral challenge of our time. When he was seen to be walking away from the issue, and the emissions trading scheme was abandoned, that was the turning point in his electoral fortunes and the polls started to nosedive. By the time Julia Gillard's Labor government and the Greens agreed on a carbon tax, the popular sentiment for action on climate change was being swamped by opposition forces focused on the way Labor had gone against previous assurances about the tax. Now with climate change sceptic Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, with a government set to bring in its Direct Action policy, which has been criticised by many for being ineffectual in cutting greenhouse gasses to desirable levels, we are still in a state of crisis about climate change.
During nearly all of the debate about Labor's carbon tax before and during the election, there was little mention of the reason why action on climate change was necessary. The debate became simply an economic, and a populist, one. What is happening to our climate seemed to be forgotten by most politicians. As we continue to pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, we are now more in need of effective climate policy than ever before.
The new Abbott government's speedy action in axing the Climate Commission and sacking Tim Flannery indicates where this government is heading on climate change, and what its beliefs are in regard to an issue that, whether the government likes it or not, underpins Australia's future.
If future generations are to see the wonderful snow vistas in the high country, and if we are to be responsible custodians of the plants and animals of the mountains, we have to take climate action seriously, and take it now.
Matthew Higgins is a Canberra historian and an associate of the Research Centre at the National Museum of Australia. He has been a regular visitor to the Snowy Mountains for nearly four decades.