- Snow in the NSW and ACT alpine region is important for ecosystems, biodiversity, energy generation and winter tourism.
- Less snow affects the alpine region’s ecology and economy.
- Natural snow depth has been declining since the late 1950s because of climate change, and is projected to continue declining.
- Adaptation strategies being carried out include cloud seeding, conservation management and increased snowmaking for alpine ski resorts.
Impacts of changing snowfall in NSW
The NSW and ACT alpine region is the highest mountain range in Australia. It is important for ecosystems, biodiversity, energy generation and winter tourism.
Less snowfall has several direct and indirect impacts – which can be physical, ecological and economic. The most common are:
- less snow cover and snowmelt
- loss of endemic species and communities
- more invasive species
- less winter tourism.
Snowy Mountain Hydro-electric Scheme
The Snowy Mountain Hydro-electric Scheme relies on water and snowmelt to drive 9 power stations, which produce an average of 4,500 gigawatt-hours of renewable electricity each year. 50% of the Snowy Scheme inflows come from snowmelt and rain during spring. A bad snow season can reduce the total inflows for the year.
The Snowy Scheme also supports NSW farmers by releasing water from rain and snowmelt into the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers. This provides irrigation for the Murray–Darling Basin, the largest agricultural region in Australia.
Finally, the Snowy Scheme must release water for environmental purposes, and any decrease in rain and snow fall will affect the Scheme’s ability to release water for the environment.
Alpine region species
A decline in snow depth will affect some species and ecosystems that thrive in the alpine region. For some small mammal species, less snow (depth and area) will reduce the availability of suitable habitat during winter and could increase predation. Migratory birds may appear in the region earlier in the season. Changes in snow will likely alter the types and distribution of alpine vegetation – new species may appear, but some others may disappear.
Downstream species are also affected, as less snowmelt means less water available in the landscape and fewer environmental water releases.
Snow is a major driver of tourism in the Alpine region and so reduced snowfall has the potential to affect the number of tourists visiting the region. Many people and businesses in the surrounding areas are heavily reliant on snow based tourism and so declines in snow have the potential to impact the local economy.
How snow is affected by climate change in NSW
Snow depth is closely related to temperature – higher temperatures mean less snowfall and therefore decreased snow depth. Higher temperatures also lead to earlier melting of snow, changing snow seasons and when water from snowmelt is available.
Climate projections for the South East and Tablelands in the near and far future show that the Alpine region is likely to experience:
- higher temperatures
- fewer cold nights
- less snow and shorter snow seasons.
Natural snow depth has been declining since the late 1950s, with the largest declines during spring and at lower altitudes. There are also fewer days of snow.
Climate change projections show that, as Australia’s temperatures continue to increase, the maximum snow depths will continue to decrease and the snow seasons will become shorter. For example, areas with at least 30 days of snow cover will decrease by 30 to 93% by 2050.
Adapting to changes in snowfall in NSW
Adaptation strategies include efforts to control the environment, as well as efforts to minimise economic impacts.
Snowy Hydro’s Cloud Seeding Program increases overall precipitation by about 14% in the area. Cloud seeding increases snowfall over the Snowy Mountains during the cold months, increasing the amount of water available.
Adaptation strategies to protect vulnerable ecosystems include:
- controlling or limiting invasive species
- rehabilitating disturbed sites
- restoring endemic communities and connectivity
- conserving endangered species through off-site breeding programs.
Alpine resorts may use snowmaking technology to:
- maximise seasonal length and viability
- improve and maintain the quality of the slopes during the season by topping up natural snow in areas that have low cover
- allow skiers and snowboarders access to more areas.
Some alpine resorts may convert to summer activities and increased property development as ways to adapt to less snow.